Mixed re­views on trav­eler face scans

Sys­tem can boost safety and ef­fi­ciency, but what about pri­vacy?

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY LORI ARATANI

When a fa­cial recog­ni­tion scan­ner helped au­thor­i­ties nab a man try­ing to en­ter the coun­try us­ing some­one else’s pass­port at Dulles In­ter­na­tional Air­port last month, of­fi­cials her­alded the tech­nol­ogy as a “step for­ward” in pro­tect­ing the United States from threats.

Later, when a sim­i­lar sys­tem was un­veiled that al­lows in­ter­na­tional trav­el­ers to have their faces scanned to board flights, of­fi­cials said it would make the travel ex­pe­ri­ence smoother and more se­cure by elim­i­nat­ing the need for board­ing passes and IDs. Trav­el­ers’ faces will serve as their iden­ti­fi­ca­tion.

“It’s con­ve­nient, se­cure and ef­fi­cient,” said John Wag­ner, deputy ex­ec­u­tive as­sis­tant com­mis­sioner at U.S. Cus­toms and Border Pro­tec­tion’s of­fice of field op­er­a­tions. “We just have to find bet­ter ways than lin­ing ev­ery­one up and man- ually re­view­ing [doc­u­ments].”

But pri­vacy ad­vo­cates and civil lib­er­tar­i­ans are con­cerned about the de­vices’ ac­cu­racy and po­ten­tial mis­use of the in­for­ma­tion they col­lect, and they say the tech­nol­ogy is be­ing rushed into use be­fore it has been fully vet­ted.

“Right now, there is very lit­tle fed­eral law that pro­vides any type of pro­tec­tions or lim­i­ta­tions with re­spect to the use of bio­met­rics in gen­eral and the use of fa­cial recog­ni­tion in par­tic­u­lar,” said Jeramie D. Scott, na­tional se­cu­rity coun­sel for the Elec­tronic Pri­vacy In­for­ma­tion Cen­ter, which has filed Free­dom of In­for­ma­tion Act re­quests seek­ing de­tails about the pro­gram.

At a dozen U.S. air­ports, cus­toms

of­fi­cers col­lect pho­tos of trav­el­ers’ faces when they land in the United States. At 15 air­ports, in­clud­ing At­lanta’s Harts­field-Jack­son, Chicago’s O’Hare and Dulles, cam­eras do fa­cial scans of trav­el­ers be­fore they leave the coun­try. Fa­cial recog­ni­tion has been used in more than 3 mil­lion in­stances by Cus­toms and Border Pro­tec­tion since June 2017.

CBP says the pro­gram will ex­pand to all U.S. air­ports with in­ter­na­tional ser­vice.

Pri­vacy ad­vo­cates agree that ef­forts to im­prove the travel ex­pe­ri­ence prob­a­bly will be wel­comed by any­one who’s ever trudged through an air­port with their bag­gage, but they say re­quir­ing peo­ple to sub­mit to fa­cial scan­ning goes too far. The gov­ern­ment, they say, needs to do a bet­ter job of ex­plain­ing why the scans are needed, how it in­tends to use the in­for­ma­tion and how long the in­for­ma­tion will be kept, among other things.

Adam Schwartz, se­nior staff at­tor­ney with the Elec­tronic Fron­tier Foun­da­tion, said a sys­tem that uses bio­met­rics — par­tic­u­larly fa­cial scans — presents unique chal­lenges to a per­son’s pri­vacy and se­cu­rity be­cause those char­ac­ter­is­tics can’t be changed once they are ac­quired.

“You can’t change your face the way you can change a li­cense plate,” he said.

Congress has pushed for more than a decade to de­velop pro­grams that would use bio­met­rics to track those who en­ter and exit the coun­try. In 2016, it au­tho­rized up to $1 bil­lion col­lected from cer­tain visa fees to fund its im­ple­men­ta­tion. The ef­fort re­ceived an­other boost when Pres­i­dent Trump signed an ex­ec­u­tive or­der in March 2017 di­rect­ing the De­part­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity to ex­pe­dite im­ple­men­ta­tion.

An at­trac­tive op­tion

Im­prove­ments in tech­nol­ogy have made fa­cial-recog­ni­tion scans a more at­trac­tive op­tion for iden­ti­fy­ing the more than 350,000 in­ter­na­tional trav­el­ers who move through CBP’s sys­tems daily. Cam­eras are smaller and cheaper. Fa­cial scans of­ten take less time than col­lect­ing fin­ger­prints. The im­prove­ments also have made air­ports and air­lines more will­ing to try the pro­grams — es­pe­cially with the promise that they could speed the board­ing process and move trav­el­ers through cus­toms more quickly.

“The in­dus­try vi­sion, broadly, is get­ting away from pa­per and the his­tor­i­cal ap­proaches for the air travel process,” said Matthew J. Cor­nelius, vice pres­i­dent of air pol­icy for Air­ports Coun­cil In­ter­na­tional — North Amer­ica, a trade group that ad­vo­cates for air­ports. “With bio­met­rics, there re­ally are a lot of op­por­tu­ni­ties and pos­si­bil­i­ties.”

The scans are op­tional for U.S. cit­i­zens, but it’s not clear whether trav­el­ers are aware that they can refuse. CBP said it com­mu­ni­cates the in­for­ma­tion through signs at air­ports, but crit­ics con­tend that peo­ple of­ten don’t read what’s posted and un­wit­tingly al­low them­selves to be scanned.

Here’s how it works: Trav­el­ers from out­side the United States who fly into At­lanta, Or­lando, John F. Kennedy, Mi­ami, San Diego, San Jose and Los Angeles in­ter­na­tional air­ports and on cer­tain flights into Hous­ton In­ter­na­tional, have their faces scanned at cus­toms be­fore en­ter­ing the coun­try. The scans are re­quired for for­eign na­tion­als en­ter­ing and leav­ing the coun­try. First-time vis­i­tors also must pro­vide their fin­ger­prints.

The scans are com­pared with images CBP stores on what it says are se­cure sys­tems and in the cloud. The stored images can in­clude pass­port pho­tos or pho­tos sub­mit­ted with visa ap­pli­ca­tions.

At Dulles, the sys­tem has caught two peo­ple — a 26-year-old woman and a 26-year-old man — trav­el­ing with pass­ports that did not be­long to them. The woman, de­tected on Mon­day, had a U.S. pass­port but was a Ghana­ian cit­i­zen. The man, nabbed in Au­gust, was trav­el­ing with a French pass­port; of­fi­cers found his iden­ti­fi­ca­tion card from Congo Repub­lic hid­den in his shoe. In both cases, the pass­port pho­tos did not match the fa­cial scans.

CBP of­fi­cials said the two in­ci­dents were the first times im­pos­tors had been caught by the new tech­nol­ogy.

For­eign vis­i­tors who leave the United States from cer­tain air­ports also have their faces scanned be­fore they board. Air­ports and air­lines are pi­lot­ing dif­fer­ent ver­sions of the bio­met­ric pro­gram, but at Dulles, trav­el­ers have their pic­tures taken with iPads in­stalled at de­par­ture gates. The image is then com­pared with a “gallery” of images pulled from DHS records, in­clud­ing pass­port or visa pho­tos of all trav­el­ers on the flight. If the images match, the screen flashes green, and the per­son is al­lowed to board. If there is a mis­match, the screen flashes red, and the per­son may be pulled aside for ad­di­tional screen­ing.

Scans of chil­dren younger than 14 are not re­quired. Air­lines and air­ports do not have ac­cess to ei­ther the stored images or the ones taken at the gate, of­fi­cials said.

‘I have mixed feel­ings’

A re­cent demon­stra­tion of the tech­nol­ogy on an SAS flight bound for Copen­hagen showed how quickly it can move pas­sen­gers from the gate to the plane. For now, gate agents must man­u­ally re­view pass­ports. Even­tu­ally, though, only a fa­cial scan will be needed to board.

Tad Siem­bida, 73, watched skep­ti­cally as other pas­sen­gers used the sys­tem.

“I have mixed feel­ings,” he said. “It’s like GPS know­ing where I am. You lose your pri­vacy, and I like my anonymity.”

Nev­er­the­less, the re­tired postal worker from Ohio re­lented.

“At my age, they prob­a­bly have all kinds of in­for­ma­tion on me any­way,” he said with a shrug.

CBP Com­mis­sioner Kevin McAleenan ex­plained how the tech­nol­ogy im­proved board­ing at the Los Angeles air­port: Of­fi­cials were able to load an A380 with more than 350 pas­sen­gers in less than 20 min­utes — half the time it would nor­mally take.

“Fa­cial recog­ni­tion and the ca­pa­bil­ity that it pro­vides is re­ally the next step,” McAleenan said. “It’s user-friendly, it’s fast, it’s flex­i­ble, and it’s cost-ef­fec­tive, and we be­lieve it will change the face of in­ter­na­tional travel both in the board­ing process and in the speed and se­cu­rity of in­ter­na­tional ar­rivals.”

Of­fi­cials said pho­tos of U.S. cit­i­zens are deleted once their iden­tity has been con­firmed. With nonci­t­i­zens, pho­tos taken when they ar­rive are stored in CBP’s sys­tem for 75 years. Pho­tos taken when they de­part are deleted af­ter 14 days.

But crit­ics who have watched the rapid de­ploy­ment of the tech­nol­ogy say there are trade-offs for that con­ve­nience. Once the sys­tem is in place, they say, there are no guar­an­tees that it won’t be ex­panded.

“We need to take a step back be­cause there will be con­se­quences that we might not think about un­less we sit down and have a mean­ing­ful dis­cus­sion,” said Scott, of the Elec­tronic Pri­vacy In­for­ma­tion Cen­ter.

There also are ques­tions about the le­gal­ity of col­lect­ing bio­met­ric in­for­ma­tion from U.S. cit­i­zens.

A study last year by re­searchers at Ge­orge­town Univer­sity Law School’s Cen­ter on Pri­vacy and Tech­nol­ogy noted that while Congress has passed leg­is­la­tion au­tho­riz­ing the col­lec­tion of bio­met­ric data from nonci­t­i­zens, it has never ex­plic­itly au­tho­rized the col­lec­tion of that in­for­ma­tion from cit­i­zens.

“If Congress had wanted to tell DHS to col­lect Amer­i­cans’ bio­met­rics at the border, it could eas­ily have done so,” the re­port’s au­thors wrote. “It never has. With­out ex­plicit au­tho­riza­tion, DHS can­not and should not be scan­ning the faces of Amer­i­cans as they de­part on in­ter­na­tional flights, as it is cur­rently do­ing.”

It’s also un­clear whether the scans are more ef­fec­tive than the pre­vi­ous sys­tem that used data from pass­ports and other travel doc­u­ments to iden­tify peo­ple. A 2014 study by the Im­mi­gra­tion Task Force of the Bi­par­ti­san Pol­icy Cen­ter said bio­met­ric exit records “of­fer mixed value” for the gov­ern­ment’s ef­forts to crack down on trav­el­ers who over­stay their visas.

The Ge­orge­town re­port noted that the scans are less ef­fec­tive at cor­rectly iden­ti­fy­ing peo­ple de­pend­ing on their race or gen­der and said that Home­land Se­cu­rity’s own data found that the sys­tem re­jected as many as 1 in 25 trav­el­ers — even though they had valid travel doc­u­ments.

CBP of­fi­cials say their sys­tem is able to match trav­el­ers who have pho­to­graphs in ex­ist­ing gov­ern­ment data­bases in less than two sec­onds 99 per­cent of the time.

“We are not see­ing any bias on say, eth­nic dif­fer­ences, gen­der dif­fer­ences,” said CBP’s Wag­ner. “We are not see­ing any no­tice­able bias.”

And then there is the worry about how the in­for­ma­tion is used.

“Even if they’re pitch­ing it ev­ery two weeks, it’s a very ripe set of data that can be mis­used,” Schwartz said. “They say it’s for catch­ing peo­ple for us­ing fake IDs, but it could be very tempt­ing to ex­pand the sys­tem.”

Schwartz said it is im­por­tant to re­mem­ber that DHS is fo­cused on se­cu­rity.

“It’s not their mis­sion to pro­tect our pri­vacy,” he noted.

Pri­vacy ad­vo­cates like Schwartz and Scott said of­fi­cials should put off ex­pand­ing the pro­gram un­til there is more dis­cus­sion about its im­pli­ca­tions.

CBP is un­der­go­ing the fed­eral rule­mak­ing process that would al­low mem­bers of the pub­lic to com­ment on the sys­tem’s de­ploy­ment.

The agency has found bi­par­ti­san al­lies in Congress, in­clud­ing Sens. Ed­ward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) who in let­ters to DHS Sec­re­tary Kirst­jen Nielsen urged the agency to go through the for­mal rule­mak­ing process.

“We be­lieve this for­mal rule­mak­ing will pro­vide DHS with an op­por­tu­nity to ad­dress the con­cerns pre­vi­ously raised by us as well as other stake­hold­ers, in­clud­ing air­lines, air­ports, and pri­vacy ad­vo­cates,” Markey and Lee wrote. “It will also en­sure a full vet­ting of this po­ten­tially sweep­ing pro­gram that could im­pact ev­ery Amer­i­can leav­ing this coun­try by air­port.”


Of­fi­cials set up fa­cial-recog­ni­tion scan­ners at Dulles In­ter­na­tional Air­port, one of a dozen U.S. sites us­ing the photo tech­nol­ogy.


Sta­tion man­ager Chad Shane of SAS Air­lines takes a trav­eler through the scan­ning process at Dulles In­ter­na­tional Air­port. The fa­cial scans can be com­pared with stored pass­port and visa pho­tos.

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