Use of facial recognition tech in airports runs into privacy fears

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Who’s in charge? The Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Customs and Border Protection unit is leading the charge, promoting the technology on its website as “the ideal technology path to a more seamless travel experience.” President Donald Trump added urgency with a 2017 order that called for security officials to make biometrics a priority.

Meanwhile, the Transportation Security Administration, another Homeland Security agency, has been collaborating with CBP on biometrics and has set a series of goals. One is face-scanning travelers in TSA Precheck lines (and integrating that data with fingerprints). Another is face scanning more domestic travelers (on a voluntary basis) and perhaps integrating that data with driver’s license data by way of Homeland Security’s Real ID program.

How fast is this moving? In an April report, Homeland Security officials said that within four years, they intend to scan the faces of 97% of passengers, including U.S. citizens and foreign nationals, on outbound international flights.

The agency already has scanned the faces of more than 25 million passengers, apprehended 180 impostors and confirmed that more than 20,000 travelers had overstayed their visas, a CBP spokesperson said Aug. 14.

Meanwhile, Britain, China, Singapore, Malaysia and the United Arab Emirates are exploring biometrics, and many airlines see this as a chance to speed operations. Among the U.S. carriers working with CBP: American, Delta, JetBlue and United. One recent report predicted the facial recognition market worldwide would grow from $3.2 billion in sales in 2019 to $7 billion in 2024.

How many U.S. airports are doing it? Ongoing biometric exit operations (including facial recognition) are used at 22 U.S. airports, including Los Angeles International Airport, San Diego and San Francisco, a CBP spokesperson reported in an Aug. 14 email.

The agency also is doing biometric entry processing at 11 U.S. airports, including LAX, San Diego and San Jose, Calif., and at airports in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates; Aruba; and Dublin and Shannon, Ireland, that send travelers to the U.S. CBP is also scanning at three seaports in Florida and one in New Jersey. CBP location lists can be found at

What’s up at LAX? LAX’s Bradley International Terminal has three gates (152, 154 and 156, as of mid-August) where biometric facial scanners are used, all in collaboration with CBP and scanner manufacturer Vision-Box, airport spokesman Frederick Badlissi said. Those gates handle Air France, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Finnair, Korean Air, KLM, Lufthansa, Qantas, Singapore and Norwegian airlines.

CBP also ran test programs last year at Terminal 4.

A CBP spokesperson said the CBP and TSA biometric initiatives so far “only include international travel,” not domestic flights. But Clear, a private company that offers its subscription biometric ID system to speed along domestic and global travelers, has lanes and enrollment stations at LAX terminals 1 through 7.

How does facial recognition work? Passengers submit to a photo instead of showing a passport or boarding pass. Authorities access encrypted cloud data, then compare the fresh image against existing images in government databases.

If no match materializes, airlines or CBP officials ask for ID or run checks with more government sources.

CBP officials say the process takes just under two seconds per person, with an accuracy rate of more than 97%.

Airlines and airports often buy the cameras that take the photos, then link the resulting images to CBP’s biometric matching service (which relies on a “matching engine” from NEC Corp.). Airlines, airports and the TSA can access that matching service at check-in, bag drop, security checkpoints or boarding, the CBP spokesperson said.

What happens to these new photos?

CBP says that “all photos of U.S. Citizens are deleted within 12 hours of identity verification.” Images of noncitizens may be retained longer, even up to 75 years, depending on circumstances.

The CBP noted in a report last year that “an approved partner may collect photos of travelers using its own equipment under its own separate business process for commercial purposes.”

What if I say no? The CBP and TSA say that U.S. citizens have that right and that airport authorities should be ready to process travelers the old-fashioned way. (Some noncitizens can say no, but for many it’s required. For details, check CBP’s FAQs.)

CBP said it has not tracked the number of travelers opting out. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a foe of facial recognition, says that many travelers may not realize they can say no.

What do critics say? Many say that CBP technology is dangerously fallible, that facial recognition software elsewhere has delivered inaccurate results and that this new approach can undercut civil liberties.

In San Francisco and Somerville, Mass., city councils have banned their police from using facial recognition software.

U.S. Sens. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., and Mike Lee, R-Utah, wrote a letter July 26 calling for greater transparency, warning of data leaks and asking why Homeland Security has failed to release a biometrics report that was due July 2.

“American travelers deserve to fully understand exactly who has access to their biometric data, how long their data will be held, how their information will be safeguarded, and how they can opt out of this data collection altogether,” Markey and Lee wrote in the letter.

The CBP spokesperson said Aug. 14 that Homeland Security’s biometric report “is in the internal review process.”

Fight for the Future, a privacy advocacy group, has launched a campaign calling for travelers to avoid airlines that use the technology. If the government had facial recognition surveillance technology at the time of the Stonewall Riots in New York in 1969, Fight for the Future spokeswoman Evan Greer said, “it’s hard to imagine the LGBT rights movement ever forming.”


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