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Privacy Advocates Sound Alarm as CBP 'Scrambling' to Deploy Facial Recognition at Major US Airports

"The government is hurtling along a path towards its broad deployment... a deployment that seems quite unjustified and unnecessary."

surveillance camera

Passersby walk under a surveillance camera which is part of facial recognition technology test at Berlin Suedkreuz station on August 3, 2017 in Berlin, Germany. (Photo: Steffi Loos/Getty Images)

Privacy advocates raised alarm on Monday as documents revealed the U.S. government is "scrambling" to deploy a facial recognition program to screen international travelers at the nation's 20 busiest airports.

"This is opening the door to an extraordinarily more intrusive and granular level of government control, starting with where we can go and our ability to move freely about the country."
—Edward Hasbrouck, Identity Project

The 346 pages of government records—obtained by the nonprofit Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) and shared exclusively with BuzzFeed News—bolster mounting concerns among privacy advocates about sweeping, secretive government surveillance as well as the pitfalls of facial recognition technology.

"Facial recognition is becoming normalized as an infrastructure for checkpoint control," said Jay Stanley, an ACLU senior policy analyst. "It's an extremely powerful surveillance technology that has the potential to do things never before done in human history. Yet the government is hurtling along a path towards its broad deployment—and in this case, a deployment that seems quite unjustified and unnecessary."

Stanley is just one of many privacy advocates critical of efforts by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP)—a federal law enforcement agency under the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)—to implement the "Biometric Entry-Exit System."

Through the program, according to three internal documents (pdfs) from DHS, "CBP will transform the way it identifies travelers by shifting the key to unlocking a traveler's record from biographic identifiers to biometric ones—primarily a traveler's face."

Specifically, according to one of the documents, "CBP will build a backend communication portal to support TSA, airport, and airline partners in their efforts to use facial images as a single biometric key for identifying and matching travelers to their identities." The portal "will enable them to use verified biometrics for check-in, baggage drop, security checkpoints, lounge access, boarding, and other processes."

The facial recognition program's implementation began with a pilot program at Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport in 2016, under a law enacted by the Obama administration.

In 2017, President Donald Trump issued an executive order instructing DHS to expedite efforts to use biometric verification on people crossing U.S. borders.

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To meet Trump's desired timeline, BuzzFeed noted, CBP aims to use "facial recognition technology on travelers aboard 16,300 flights per week—or more than 100 million passengers traveling on international flights out of the United States—in as little as two years."

The program has generated a wide range of concerns about how third-parties and government agencies store and use the photos of travelers as well as a general lack of regulation and oversight.

"I think it's important to note what the use of facial recognition [in airports] means for American citizens," Jeramie Scott, director of EPIC's Domestic Surveillance Project, told BuzzFeed. "It means the government, without consulting the public, a requirement by Congress, or consent from any individual, is using facial recognition to create a digital ID of millions of Americans."

As BuzzFeed explained:

In the U.S., there are no laws governing the use of facial recognition. Courts have not ruled on whether it constitutes a search under the Fourth Amendment. There are no checks, no balances. Yet government agencies are working quickly to roll it out in every major airport in the country. It's already being used in seventeen international airports, among them: Atlanta, New York City, Boston, San Jose, Chicago, and two airports in Houston. Many major airlines are on board with the idea—Delta, JetBlue, British Airways, Lufthansa, and American Airlines. Airport operations companies, including Los Angeles World Airports, Greater Orlando Aviation Authority, Mineta San Jose International Airport, Miami International Airport, and the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, are also involved.

Some critics charge that the ongoing implementation of the program may violate federal law. According to BuzzFeed, the documents obtained by EPIC "suggest that CBP skipped portions of a critical 'rulemaking process,' which requires the agency to solicit public feedback before adopting technology intended to be broadly used on civilians, something privacy advocates back up."

Ultimately, "this is opening the door to an extraordinarily more intrusive and granular level of government control, starting with where we can go and our ability to move freely about the country," warned Edward Hasbrouck, a consultant to the group Identity Project. "And then potentially, once the system is proved out in that way, it can literally extend to a vast number of controls in other parts of our lives."

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