We knew the DHS would get to this point eventually. Since the beginning of its biometric scanning program rollout, the DHS has planned on adding US citizens to the list of people forced to trade their faces for air travel privileges. So far, the program has been limited to suspicious foreigners (which is all of them, including those here on visas), but a recent filing -- caught by Zack Whittaker at TechCrunch -- says flying in the United States would soon require adding yourself to the government's facial recognition databases.
Homeland Security wants to expand facial recognition checks for travelers arriving to and departing from the U.S. to also include citizens, which had previously been exempt from the mandatory checks.
In a filing, the department has proposed that all travelers, and not just foreign nationals or visitors, will have to complete a facial recognition check before they are allowed to enter the U.S., but also to leave the country.
The Department of Homeland Security's excuse for subjecting US citizens to mandatory face scans is the homeland's security. Here's the DHS in its own words:
To facilitate the implementation of a seamless biometric entry-exit system that uses facial recognition and to help prevent persons attempting to fraudulently use U.S. travel documents and identify criminals and known or suspected terrorists, DHS is proposing to amend the regulations to provide that all travelers, including U.S. citizens, may be required to be photographed upon entry and/or departure.
"May be required" should actually read "will be required." The DHS's privacy assessment of its biometric scanning efforts noted that opting out of biometric scanning means never leaving the country:
[T]he only way for an individual to ensure he or she is not subject to collection of biometric information when traveling internationally is to refrain from traveling…
The government would like to get to know its legal residents better, it would appear. It hopes to be able to put faces to names with an acceptable degree of accuracy. What's acceptable to the DHS probably won't be acceptable to travelers, but travelers aren't making the rules. Travelers are only subjected to them.
The only thing preventing this program from becoming China is the DHS's inefficiency -- or a massive public outcry. After this story started making news this week, DHS suddenly decided to put it on pause for the time being. Of course, it still has until next year to roll out biometric scanning to the 20 largest airports in the country. It's been working on this for a few years now and has yet to roll this out completely to its test markets. Whatever gains are made in facial recognition accuracy will hopefully arrive in time to keep the lowest bidders from endangering the freedoms of travelers just looking to exit or enter their home country. Even if DHS is backing down on scanning Americans, it's not clear it's backing down on its overall commitment to facial scanning technology.
The weak promise the DHS gave months ago about keeping Americans out of this was quickly broken to better facilitate the treatment of citizens and visa holders as terrorists every time they board a flight that crosses US borders -- so I wouldn't put much faith in its latest promise not to go there any more. The DHS and its large adult son, the TSA, have done very little to make traveling more secure. But when there's billions of budgetary dollars at stake, you can't be too careful. The money must be spent and those who firmly believe something must be done to secure the nation will see some things being done. Whatever collateral damage this does to Americans and their trust in the federal government is apparently acceptable.
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