Trump administration wants face scans of all Americans who travel outside the country

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 13 July, 2017, 4:21am
UPDATED : Thursday, 13 July, 2017, 7:11am

If the Trump administration gets its way, US citizens boarding international flights will have to submit to a face scan, a plan privacy advocates call a step toward a surveillance state.

The Department of Homeland Security says it’s the only way to successfully expand a programme that tracks non-immigrant foreigners. They have been required by law since 2004 to submit to biometric identity scans, but to date have only had their fingerprints and photos collected prior to entry.

Now, DHS says it’s finally ready to implement face scans on departure, aimed mainly at better tracking visa overstays but also at tightening security. But, the agency says, US citizens must also be scanned for the programme to work.

Privacy advocates say that oversteps Congress’ mandate.

“Congress authorised scans of foreign nationals. DHS heard that and decided to scan everyone. That’s not how a democracy is supposed to work,” said Alvaro Bedoya, executive director of the Centre on Privacy and Technology at Georgetown University.

Trials are underway at airports in Boston, Chicago, Houston, Atlanta, Kennedy Airport in New York City and Dulles in the Washington, DC. DHS aims to have high-volume US international airports engaged beginning next year.

During the trials, passengers will be able to opt out. But a DHS assessment of the privacy impact indicates that won’t always be the case.

“The only way for an individual to ensure he or she is not subject to collection of biometric information when travelling internationally is to refrain from travelling,” says the June 12 document available on the website of Customs and Border Protection, which runs the DHS programme.

John Wagner, the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) deputy executive assistant commissioner in charge of the programme, confirmed in an interview that US citizens departing on international flights will submit to face scans.

Wagner says the agency has no plans to retain the biometric data of US citizens and will delete all scans of them within 14 days. However, he doesn’t rule out CBP keeping them in the future after going “through the appropriate privacy reviews and approvals.”

A CBP spokeswoman, Jennifer Gabris, said the agency has not yet examined whether what would require a law change.

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Privacy advocates say making the scans mandatory for US citizens pushes the nation toward a Big Brother future of pervasive surveillance where local and state police and federal agencies, and even foreign governments, could leverage citizens collected “digital face prints” to track them wherever they go.

Jay Stanley, an American Civil Liberties Union senior policy analyst, says US law enforcement and security agencies already exert “sufficient gravitational pulls in wanting to record and track what masses of individuals are doing,” he says.

The biometric exit endeavour will cost billions. That’s partly because US airports don’t have dedicated secure immigration areas for departing international flights. Domestic and international passengers mingle in the same concourses.

Currently, foreigners arriving in the US submit to photo and digital fingerprint recording, initially when applying for visas. There are no “exit” scans. US citizens are subject to neither; their photos are digitally stored in a microchip in their passports with biographical data.

In written testimony to Congress in May, CBP said US citizens leaving on international flights cannot be exempted from face scans because: “First, it is not feasible to require airlines to have two separate boarding processes for US citizens and non-US citizens, and second, to ensure US citizen travellers are the true bearer of the passport they are presenting for travel.”

Face recognition technology is getting better, but is far from perfect. A smile recorded at the gate could, for example, trigger a mismatch when compared to a serious gaze in a passport photo.

In a previous Atlanta pilot that processed about 28,000 travellers, the match rate was 90 per cent or higher, said Gabris, the CBP spokeswoman.

Robert Mann, an aviation consultant in Port Washington, New York, said such a failure rate would be “a non-starter” by slowing the boarding process.

Congress last year approved up to US$1 billion over the next decade collected from visa fees to get the programME rolling technically.

DHS officials hope to defray costs through partnerships with airlines that are incorporating biometrics to boost efficiencies. Two airlines in the pilot programme, Delta and JetBlue, tout identity-verification technology’s convenience for other ends: Delta for speeding baggage handling, JetBlue for eliminating boarding passes.

Even CBP knows it won’t have a full picture of who is overstaying visas until face scans are also done at US land and sea borders.

Such concerns shouldn’t stop the government from moving ahead with the programme and US citizens have already sacrificed considerable privacy as the price of fighting terrorists, said Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which promotes restrictions on immigration.

More than 700,000 overstayed their visas in the year ending September 30.

But Ben Ball, a biometrics consultant and former DHS analyst, says the government hasn’t yet addressed the thorniest questions.

“This is still a theoretical system,” he said. “We are the first country on earth to attempt a comprehensive biometric system and it’s technically very complicated.”