DHS Is Starting to Scan Americans’ Faces Before They Get on International Flights
By Harrison Rudolph
Jun 21 2017
Air travel already features some attributes of a police state. Metal detectors. Bomb-sniffing dogs. Pat-downs. A gloved TSA agent peering at your toothpaste. But it could get worse. What if your check-in also involved a face recognition scan?
Decades ago, Congress mandated that federal authorities keep track of foreign nationals as they enter and leave the United States. If the government could record when every visitor stepped on and off of U.S. soil, so the thinking went, it could easily see whether a foreign national had overstayed a visa.
But in June of last year, without congressional authorization, and without consulting the public, the Department of Homeland Security started scanning the faces of Americans leaving the country, too.
You may have heard about new JetBlue or Delta programs that let passengers board their flights by submitting to a face recognition scan. Few realize, however, that these systems are actually the first phase of DHS’s “Biometric Exit” program.
For certain international flights from Atlanta and New York, DHS has partnered with Delta to bring mandatory face recognition scans to the boarding gate. The Delta system checks a passenger is supposed to be on the plane by comparing her face, captured by a kiosk at the boarding gate, to passenger manifest photos from State Department databases. It also checks passengers’ citizenship or immigration status. Meanwhile, in Boston, DHS has partnered with JetBlue to roll out a voluntary face recognition system for travelers flying to Aruba. In JetBlue’s case, you can actually get your face scanned instead of using a physical ticket.
While these systems differ in details, they have two things in common. First, they are laying the groundwork for a much broader, mandatory deployment of Biometric Exit across the country. Second, they scan the faces of everyone—including American citizens.
Treating U.S. citizens like foreign nationals contradicts years of congressional mandates. DHS has never consulted the American public about whether Americans should be subject to face recognition. That’s because Congress has never given Homeland Security permission to do it in the first place. Congress has passed Biometric Exit bills at least nine times. In each, it has been clear: This is a program meant for foreign nationals. In fact, when President Trump issued an executive order in January on Biometric Exit, it was actually reissued to clarify that it didn’t apply to American citizens.
Why should you care? Well, think of what could happen when DHS’s airport face recognition systems misfire. And they will. With an error rate that could be as highas 4 percent for the JetBlue system—and with countless people flying—false rejections will be a daily occurrence. That could mean missing your flight because the system fails to recognize you. The best research available indicates face recognition performs worse when an image is more than six years old. That’s a serious problem when your passport or driver’s license photo may be a decade old. Other research suggests that face recognition systems have a harder time matching the faces of African Americans, women, and children. When these systems make mistakes, will DHS subject you to the more intensive Secondary Screening? Will you be taken to an interrogation room? Will you be turned away altogether?
What’s even worse is there is good reason to think Homeland Security’s face recognition systems will be expanded.