Facial Recognition to Check Pedestrians at Border Crossing

U.S. Customs and Border Protection in Texas announced that it will begin monitoring pedestrian traffic through the Brownsville Port of Entry with biometric technology. Critics say the technology has flaws and violates privacy rights.

by Erin Sheridan, The Brownsville Herald / March 24, 2020
U.S. Customs and Border Protection plans to use facial recognition for more than 97 percent of commercial air travelers by 2022. Flickr/US Customs/Donna Burton

(TNS) — Customs and Border Protection announced last month that the agency was introducing biometric facial comparison technology at the Brownsville Port of Entry intended to photograph every pedestrian traveler entering the United States.

The technology seeks to compare the image to passport and ID photos already stored in government records, according to the agency. It stated in a press release that it “has used biometric facial comparison to interdict more than 250 imposters who attempted to cross the Southwest Border using another person’s travel document” since Sept. 2018.

The technology is also used by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to screen travelers entering the United States at airports.

According to CBP, U.S. citizens can opt out of being photographed by the technology, but advocates say the process violates travelers’ privacy rights and that the agency has not adhered to the opt-out policy.

Shaw Drake, policy counsel for the ACLU Border Rights Center in El Paso, said both CBP and the TSA have dramatically expanded their use of facial recognition technology. According to the ACLU, the program was piloted by CBP in the El Paso sector and spread to other ports of entry.

According to the agency, the technology is also in use at the Progreso Port of Entry and nine other locations on the U.S./Mexico border. CBP said in the release that the Department of Homeland Security only stores the photographs of U.S. citizens for 12 hours. Photos of foreign nationals are stored by the agency indefinitely “in a secure server,” the agency wrote.

The issue at hand, however, is that the government has not provided much information regarding the program, how it functions, and what rights travelers have to ensure that the photographs are not stored.

Asked for comment, a CBP official stated, “Consistent with a Congressional mandate, CBP is implementing biometric facial comparison technology at ports of entry to provide another layer of security and convenience to the traveling public. This efficient, accurate and reliable technology will support highly-trained CBP officers in verifying the identity of international travelers, as required by federal law.”

The agency said it periodically audits to ensure adherence to the retention policy.

Drake said it’s important to remember that CBP is the same agency that was caught last year tracking advocates, attorneys, and journalists working with caravans of asylum seekers approaching ports of entry.

Additionally, Drake said the ACLU has been documenting instances of travelers who cross the border frequently in the El Paso area subjected to secondary inspections and harassment while attempting to opt out of being photographed.

“We continue to hear from people locally and are in fact continuing to collect and document information about this, about people who frequently cross and try to opt out being harassed by agents and sent to secondary inspection, questioned about their motives for opting out, told that in order top out they need to tell the agent while they’re in line - before they even get to the kiosk, which is practically impossible to do.”

The attorney crosses the border frequently and wrote a blog about his encounter with an officer who refused to let him opt out when the program was first implemented. Drake wrote that although CBP claims the technology will streamline border crossings the technology has been shown to be inaccurate, particularly when identifying people of color and women.

In its release, the agency stated that the process “only takes a few seconds and is over 97 percent accurate.”

According to Drake, once the government captures the 3D facial image of someone entering the country, that image or data can theoretically be used with cameras across the country to track the movements of people without their knowledge. The government has even considered removing the opt-out provision, according to the attorney.

“After advocacy by us at the ACLU, as well as partner organizations, the agency quickly backtracked,” he said.

ACLU’s national branch, alongside the New York Civil Liberties Union, sued the government last week in the Southern District of New York in an effort to compel CBP, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the TSA, and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to adequately respond to a sitting FOIA request asking for more information on the program.

“In 2017, CBP began a program called the Traveler Verification Service (“TVS”), which involves photographing travelers during entry or exit from the United States, and using facial recognition technology to compare those photographs with images from government holdings. As of June 2019, CBP had processed more than 20 million travelers using facial recognition,” the lawsuit stated.

Ashley Gorski, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s National Security Project working on the case, explained in an announcement published on the organization’s website that the program has enabled government surveillance with practically no oversight. “Unlike other ways of verifying a person’s identity, face recognition technology can enable persistent government surveillance on a massive scale.”

“The public has a right to know when, where, and how the government is using face recognition, and what safeguards, if any, are in pace to protect our rights. This unregulated surveillance technology threatens to fundamentally alter our free society and is in urgent need of democratic oversight.”

Additionally, Gorski was quoted arguing that the public has the right to know how airlines and companies are helping federal agencies “prop up this massive surveillance infrastructure.”

The lawsuit is seeking information regarding “plans for further implementation of face surveillance at airports”; “government contracts with airlines, airports, and other entities pertaining to the use of face recognition at the airport and other ports of entry”; “policies and procedures concerning the acquisition, processing, and retention of our biometric information”; and “analyses of the effectiveness of facial recognition technology”, according to the organization.

©2020 The Brownsville Herald (Brownsville, Texas), Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Platforms & Programs