Private airlines are the last line of defense against the growing use of biometric facial recognition software at American airports.
The U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) have announced plans to scan the faces of all flyers exiting the United States. The American Civil Liberties Union reported:
U.S. Customs and Border Protection has launched a “Traveler Verification Service” (TVS) that envisions applying face recognition to all airline passengers, including U.S. citizens, boarding flights exiting the United States. This system raises very serious privacy issues.
The only publicly available information comes from a privacy impact statement the Department of Homeland Security issued on the program, and a briefing CBP Deputy Executive Assistant Commissioner John Wagner gave to privacy advocates in Washington this week. The CBP envisions a system where airports install cameras at boarding gates to take pictures of all passengers leaving and entering the country. The pictures will have facial recognition software applied to them.
The Traveler Verification Service is currently being tested at six airports, including Boston Logan, New York JFK, Dulles in D.C., Hartsfield-Jackson in Atlanta, Chicago O’Hare, and Bush in Houston. TVS itself is part of the larger “Biometric Entry/Exit” program which was created in response to a congressional requirement to use biometrics to track individuals who may have overstayed their visas.
The ACLU explains how the program works:
The way the system works is that before departure, CBP obtains the passenger manifest for each flight, and then reaches through the government’s extensive, interconnected set of databases to assemble photographs on each passenger. Those include passport and visa photos as well as photos “captured by CBP during the entry inspection” and “from other DHS encounters.” The agency then compares face recognition templates (essentially, patterns) derived from those database photos to templates derived from live photographs taken by a camera at the boarding gate.
The ACLU warns the program will endanger civil liberties in several ways. The organization says the program will normalize facial recognition as a checkpoint technology. The danger, the ACLU says, is that once the government begins to collect biometrics from every person crossing the border, they will likely expand the practice to new places and for new purposes. Border Patrol told the ACLU they will delete live photos after 14 days, but that could change.
The most disturbing detail of this program is the fact that Congress has never authorized the use of facial recognition technology on Americans. That is set to change with the start of this new program. The ACLU says the onus is on airlines to begin resisting the implementation of this program and call for Congressional approval. The ACLU is not only calling on private airlines to demand transparency from the DHS, but to allow any passenger to opt out of the program.
“The airlines have a responsibility to ensure that customers’ rights are respected, yet they have not taken even some basic steps to fulfill this obligation,” the ACLU writes. “Until they have taken these steps—and received assurances from CBP that the agency will abide by certain privacy standards —they should not participate in these programs.”
Earlier in the summer, a writer with Yahoo Finance discussed new biometric policies on display during a recent demonstration at Washington’s National Airport.
“Instead of handing your boarding pass and ID to a Transportation Security Administration agent, you could soon simply place two fingerprints on a scanner to be recognized and ushered through security — and then you could repeat the process to board the plane,” Yahoo writes.
The use of biometrics is only the latest infringement on privacy and liberty at the airport. In June, Activist Post reported that the TSA was testing out new measures that require passengers to remove books and paper goods from their carry-on luggage. According to reports from The Wall Street Journal and Sacramento Bee, the TSA has already begun to roll out these new invasive policies.
As the Bee notes, reading material is extremely personal and revealing about a person. If individuals know that their reading habits – whether they relate to philosophy, politics, sexuality, or religion – will be scrutinized they may began a process of self-censorship. It also presents the question, what type of reading material could be questionable or even, banned?
At this point the TSA is claiming that bombs could be hidden within books and are not focusing their efforts on content specifically. However, this is likely the beginning of an incremental strategy to remove as much freedom as possible for travelers. As the Sac Bee wrote, “We need to resist the creep of authoritarianism. During the Cold War, spying on neighbors was common in the Soviet Bloc. During the Chinese Cultural Revolution, people reported others for listening to Western Classical Music.”
The American Civil Liberties Union noted that there have already been multiple cases of passengers singled out for their First Amendment-protected expressions. “For example, in 2010 the ACLU sued on behalf of a man who was abusively interrogated, handcuffed, and detained for nearly five hours because he was carrying a set of Arabic-language flash cards and a book critical of U.S. foreign policy,” the ACLU writes. We also know that the DHS database known as the “Automated Targeting System,” which tracks information on international travelers, has included notations in travelers’ permanent files about controversial books in their possession.”
In a recent interview with Fox News, John Kelly, Secretary of Homeland Security, seemed to confirm the goal of implementing the strategy on a nationwide scale. Kelly was asked whether or not the new policy of unpacking carry on luggage and separating food and electronics into separate bins will indeed go nationwide.
Although DHS officials declined to comment on specifics, ABC News reports that passengers may notice more swabbing of passengers’ hands and luggage to test for explosives. It is highly likely that the agencies book policy will be a part of these new strategies.
What are Americans going to do in order to combat the growth of the police state? Surveillance and militarization is the order of the day in America 2017. We need to demand airlines reject these biometric policies and stand together against further invasion of our privacy.