Airports Submitting Passengers to Facial-Recognition Scans

Airports Submitting Passengers to Facial-Recognition Scans

Some U.S. airports have granted a government request to use facial-recognition technology to determine passengers' identities.

According to The Intercept, the federal Customs and Border Protection agency reached out to airport officials for help in identifying fliers. Civil-liberties groups are denouncing the use of the technology, pointing out that it violates privacy rights.

The Homeland Security Department, in a recently released report on the agency's Biometric Entry-Exit Program, defended the facial scans but acknowledged that they can result in flight delays. The report lamented that the scanning requirement is not always enforced.

“Demanding flight departure schedules … significantly hampered biometric matching of passengers during the pilot in 2017,” officials wrote. “Typically, when incoming flights arrived behind schedule, the time allotted for boarding departing flights was reduced. In these cases, CBP allowed airlines to bypass biometric processing in order to save time. As such, passengers could proceed with presenting their boarding passes to gate agents without being photographed and biometrically matched by CBP first.”

The report cited a case in which about 120 passengers at Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport were allowed to skip the surveillance so the plane could take off on time. “Repeatedly permitting airlines to revert to standard flight-boarding procedures without biometric processing may become a habit that is difficult to break,” the agency warned.

However, officials also wrote that “airline officials we interviewed indicated the processing time was generally acceptable and did not contribute to departure delays.” CBP claims that the scans save time because passengers do not have to show their IDs and boarding passes to prove their identities.

The report explained that the goal is to expand the surveillance “to process 100 percent of all departing passengers by 2021.” To make that happen, “enforcement mechanisms or back-up procedures to prevent airlines from bypassing biometric processing prior to flight boarding” are necessary, according to the agency.

The use of the technology at airports began with services like TSA Pre-Check and Clear. The passengers save time by not having to stand in line, in return for giving up their privacy rights. The Intercept suggested that people might not be so willing to submit to the scans if the process caused flight delays.

The surveillance involves a computer program that matches a person's image with those in the government's database. The Verge reported that in August, the technology helped authorities apprehend a man who allegedly presented a fake document at Washington Dulles International Airport.

According to CBP, a passenger arriving from Brazil used a French passport to identify himself. A facial scan confirmed that the man's face was not the same as the photo on the passport. Officials said they found the passenger's correct ID in his shoe, showing his homeland as the Republic of Congo. The U.S. attorney's office allowed the man to avoid prosecution and the man left the country.

Washington Dulles is one of at least 14 U.S. airports employing the technology. The facility started testing it in 2015, one year before JFK Airport in New York City followed suit. Officials say they are targeting visa holders leaving the United States, as well as passengers attempting to enter the country with false documents.

Among those who oppose the scans is Harrison Rudolph of the Center on Privacy and Technology at Georgetown University Law School. He told National Public Radio that the program is “riddled with legal and technical problems.”

Rudolph said it “is a serious problem” that the Homeland Security Department “doesn't seem to know whether its system will falsely reject folks … at higher rates because of their race or gender.”

The authors of a report by the CAPA-Centre for Aviation agreed. They wrote that facial-recognition software “is not so good at identifying ethnic minorities when most of the subjects used in training the technology were from the majority group.” People wearing glasses, hats or scarves also may not pass scrutiny, according to the report.

Rudolph, who said the system rejects about 4 percent of passengers, pointed out that “DHS hasn't issued a single rule … to protect Americans' privacy.” He continued: “What DHS decides to do with this information tomorrow, I'm not sure. And without rules, there may be few protections for Americans' privacy.”

It is no coincidence that airport surveillance is expanding under the current presidential administration. Donald Trump, during his 2016 campaign and since taking office, has advocated a crackdown on illegal immigration. Last year, he signed an executive order called “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States.” The document was also known as the “travel ban” or “Muslim ban.”

Trump, at his raucous rallies two years ago, pledged to deport all undocumented immigrants and stop Muslims from entering the country. He promised to build a “big, beautiful” wall along the country's southern border, and “make Mexico pay for it.” The inflammatory rhetoric has sparked charges of racism against the president.

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