In your pants and now in your face, airport security theater is getting more personal and technologically advanced. Meanwhile, lawmakers and privacy groups are left trying to “pause” the Department of Homeland Security’s new “biometric exit” program.
“Did facial recognition replace boarding passes, unbeknownst to me?” air traveler MacKenzie Fegan tweeted to JetBlue in a thread that went viral last week. “Did I consent to this?”
Yes, then no would be the answers to those questions. It’s the same dynamic that ushered in the TSA’s naked body scanners and enhanced pat-downs a decade ago. There’s little sign of change in the Trump era.
Fegan’s surprise is about to be shared by many other air travelers leaving the US. And already the facial recognition system has been used on over 2 million people on 15,000 flights, according to a DHS report sent last week to congressional judiciary committees.
The agency’s goal by 2023 is to scan “over 97 percent of departing commercial air travelers from the United States.”
There are no regulations regarding potential (ha!) abuse or even for how the data will be managed by DHS. Senators Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts) have joined together to write angry letters about this, but so far DHS has ignored them, according to The Hill.
“DHS should pause their efforts until American travelers fully understand exactly who has access to their facial recognition data, how long their data will be held, how their information will be safeguarded, and how they can opt-out of the program altogether,” Lee and Markey have written.
Give me liberty, or give me pause! Quite the bipartisan rallying cry.
President Donald Trump already hit the fast-forward button in 2017 with an executive order streamlining the implementation of the facial recognition software. It apparently wasn’t enough that in the preceding year, Congress authorized $1 billion be spent on it by 2026.
What’s the point of this biometric exit program? To identify non-citizens overstaying visas. As they’re leaving the country. But, of course, citizens will be scanned as well. That’s “homeland security” for you.
DHS claims the face scanners identified 7,000 people who overstayed their visas. So, of the over 2 million people scanned thus far, that constitutes one-third of 1 percent.
Feel safer yet? The DHS Office of the Inspector General audited the program in September and found that US citizens were six times more likely than non-US citizens to be denied boarding their planes! Young and old people were also denied at higher rates.
The system will be assessed over the next six months, an official with US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) assured The Hill.
Obviously, there are concerns with how the photographs or data will be stored and/or shared. As of now, JetBlue claims it doesn’t have access to the images the scanners capture. CBP statements from a year ago seem to contradict that, but it’s more certain the facial recognition software providers could keep the data captured. The CBP most recently has said it keeps photos of US citizens for 14 days and non-citizens for up to 75 years.
There are many questions left to be answered. But already in at least 15 airports, airliners testing the scanners include American Airlines, British Airways, Delta, JetBlue, and Lufthansa. Oh, and cruise liner Royal Caribbean is in on the action too.