If you don’t feel like your privacy rights are already being violated enough, rest assured, things are going to get a lot worse in the near future.
Airports have been particularly invasive since the creation of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) in 2001. Since then, air travel has become quite unpleasant.
Invasive screenings, body scanners, and property searches are a major cause of irritation and inconvenience for those of us who are just trying to get from one place to another. And now, they’re adding another way to invade your privacy.
Unfortunately, some airports are already using facial recognition systems, and more will be soon. While some say this will make getting through security screenings faster, others aren’t too thrilled about using their face as a boarding pass, and privacy concerns abound.
The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) is suing U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) in an effort to stop the unwarranted searches of the biometric data of American citizens.
Here’s a bit of background on the Biometric Entry-Exit program and EPIC’s lawsuit:
The CBP’s implementation of a Comprehensive Biometric Entry/Exit Plan currently includes the testing of facial recognition and iris imaging capabilities at exit/entry points within the US. The FY 2016 Consolidated Appropriations Act provides up to a $1 billion for the CBP biometric entry/exit program and President Trump’s Executive Order “Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States” (Executive Order 13780 of March 6, 2017) explicitly calls on CBP to “expedite the completion and implementation of a biometric entry exit tracking system.”
These techniques pose significant threats to privacy and civil liberties, in particular the ability to conduct facial recognition covertly, remotely and on a mass scale. The lack of precautions that can be taken to prevent the collection of one’s facial image, in addition to the absence of well-defined federal regulations controlling the collection, use, dissemination, and retention of biometric identifiers, raises serious privacy concerns for the individual. Identification through these processes eliminates an individual’s ability to control their identities and poses a specific risk to the First Amendment rights of free association and free expression. (source)
CBP is rolling out the facial-recognition systems at the nation’s 20 top airports, and this is just the beginning.
The systems are designed to verify the identities of passengers entering and exiting the country by measuring unique facial “landmarks,” such as the distance between the eyes or from forehead to chin, and cross-checking that data with passport photos already on file.
The biometric systems are already in use at some airports, and they could be in place everywhere as early as October 2020. They’re similar to the biometric systems that some airlines have begun using to simplify and speed up the departure process. (source)
The documents show that CBP is rushing to implement the biometric system within the next two years, with the goal of using facial recognition technology on travelers aboard 16,300 flights per week (or more than 100 million passengers traveling on international flights out of the US).
Here’s more from BuzzFeed News:
These same documents state — explicitly — that there were no limits on how partnering airlines can use this facial recognition data. CBP did not answer specific questions about whether there are any guidelines for how other technology companies involved in processing the data can potentially also use it. It was only during a data privacy meeting last December that CBP made a sharp turn and limited participating companies from using this data. But it is unclear to what extent it has enforced this new rule. CBP did not explain what its current policies around data sharing of biometric information with participating companies and third-party firms are, but it did say that the agency “retains photos … for up to 14 days” of non-US citizens departing the country, for “evaluation of the technology” and “assurance of the accuracy of the algorithms” — which implies such photos might be used for further training of its facial matching AI. (source)
The government would like us to believe that facial recognition systems will make the screening process easier for us.
But is it worth the privacy invasion? The possible implications of this kind of technology go deep, as CNET explains (emphasis is mine):
There may be no more dramatic example of the tension between convenience and privacy inherent in facial recognition than the prospect of giving up your identity to clear through security faster. That benefit, after all, comes at a cost. Academic research has shown that facial recognition algorithms have error rates that vary depending on a person’s race or gender, meaning some groups could face extra screening more often than others. The technology can be used without your knowledge. And the unalterable data that facial recognition systems collect — an image of your face — raises concerns that your movements can be tracked over the course of your life if the records are kept indefinitely. (source)
The last line of that excerpt is especially chilling, don’t you think?
The potential for multiple government agencies to track you using facial recognition is real, says Jeramie Scott, senior counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center. In recently released documents his organization obtained, CBP noted that other government agencies with an interest in the photos of foreign nationals gathered at airports are Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the US Coast Guard.
“When you create the infrastructure for widespread use of facial recognition, people will find additional ways to use it,” Scott said. (source)
Of course, CBP claims the system isn’t intended for surveillance, and that US citizens can opt out. Oh, and they also say they only keep photos of US citizens in the Traveler Verification Service system for 12 hours, and photos of non-citizens for 14 days.
I feel SO much better now. Don’t you?
Seriously, though – does anyone actually believe the photos will only be stored for 12 hours?
I’m not buying it.
Regarding the ability to opt out…I’m not so sure about that one either, and I’m not the only skeptic. EPIC requested records about the alternative procedures put in place for travelers who opt out of facial recognition technology.
The complaint argued that CBP’s modification of the descriptions of alternative processes made it more difficult for passengers to opt out. Who knows what those “alternative procedures” are – giving up your first-born child, a limb, or a vial of blood, perhaps?
This is also an interesting bit of information from CNET:
The airlines and airports aren’t allowed to keep copies of the photos and must immediately purge them from their systems, according to CBP. However, they’re allowed to use other photos they take with the same cameras for commercial purposes. That means they could take a second photo and use it in their own facial recognition system to target ads to you. (source)
If you are wondering if the use of this kind of technology is legal, here’s the unpleasant truth.
Jonathan Turley, a professor at the George Washington University School of Law, told Newsweek the short answer was that we have very little, if any, legal power.
“There is no constitutional protection against an individual being facially recognized on the street,” Turley said. “If we had police officers at every corner, it would be perfectly constitutional.”
While there are restrictions on the government surveying people in their homes, in a public place, Turley said they could be legally followed and recognized, and police could report their whereabouts.
“We have this sort of collision between what our existing legal standards are and the expanding capabilities of technology,” Turley explained. “There is a glaring gap in federal law and dealing with this type of technology. It doesn’t easily fit existing doctrine.” (source)
EPIC and other privacy advocacy organizations say that the lack of transparency surrounding the use of this technology is a huge concern:
EPIC is concerned that the CBP’s biometric entry/exit tracking system and techniques lack proper privacy safeguards and maintains that the public should be fully informed about these systems. Without access to relevant records, EPIC and the public cannot assess the level to which the biometric entry/exist systems used and developed by the CPB safeguard and respect individual privacy. EPIC therefore has a significant interest in obtaining CPB documents concerning the biometric entry/exit system and plan — including reports, records, correspondence, training materials, technical specifications, memoranda, passenger complaints, contracts, policies and procedures. (source)
Jeramie Scott, senior counsel and director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center’s Domestic Surveillance Project, told Newsweek that Congress hasn’t given Customs and Border Patrol the right to conduct facial recognition on US travelers:
“So, there was no authority granted by Congress to conduct facial recognition at airports on U.S. citizens. When it comes to the use of facial recognition by the government, it should be highly restrictive and in most cases should require a warrant.” (source)
In response to the FOIA document release, US Senators Ed Markey (D-MA) and Mike Lee (R-UT) issued a statement calling for the Department of Homeland Services (DHS) to pause its rollout of the Biometric Entry-Exit program, and asked for transparency:
The documents make it clear that American citizens will be swept up in this practice as the CBP admits there is not enough time to separate U.S. citizens from non-U.S. citizens. The documents also reveal that airlines do not currently face any limits on how they can use travelers’ facial data after being tasked by the CBP to retain the equipment necessary to implement facial recognition screening. (source)
Unfortunately, facial recognition technology will probably not be limited to airports. Eventually, it will likely be used everywhere.
“It’s another step toward creating a comprehensive tracking system,” said Jay Stanley, a policy analyst with the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington. “That’s our ultimate fear, that we turn into a society where we are tracked in that way.”
For an in-depth look at facial recognition systems and how they work, check out this report from CNET: Facial recognition: Apple, Amazon, Google and the race for your face.
Do you think they will make air travel easier? Are they worth giving up privacy for a bit of convenience? In what ways do you think this technology could be abused?
The Department of Homeland Security is rushing to implement a March 2017 executive order issued by President Trump mandating the use of facial recognition to identify "100 percent of all international passengers" - including American citizens, according to BuzzFeed.
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