The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) claims a proposal to institute face scans upon boarding international flights is a necessary expansion of a program that tracks nonimmigrant foreign nationals. Critics and privacy advocates vehemently disagree, with some calling it another step toward turning the United States into a surveillance state.
The DHS is testing the program at six major airports—Boston, Chicago, Houston, Atlanta, New York City (JFK), and Washington, D.C. (Dulles)—to work out implementation details before rolling it out nationwide. Passengers embarking on international flights at these airports are required to submit to face scans before they are allowed to board a plane.
Prior to boarding, passengers have their boarding passes scanned and their pictures taken. A computer then compares the photos taken on site with the ones the government has on record, typically from a passport. (Face scanning is a bit of misnomer. The “scan” is the process of using software to compare the two digital images.)
Once their identities are confirmed, the passengers can then proceed to the gate, show their boarding passes and passports to an airline employee, and get on the plane. It’s an extra step that takes only a few seconds, and is supposed to eventually reduce the number of times a passenger must present documents when flying.
In 2004, Congress authorized collection of biometric information from nonimmigrant foreign nationals entering the United States in addition to the screening measures already in place. Until now, this has meant collecting fingerprints and photos prior to admission into the country. The DHS claims that taking photos upon departure from the United States is a necessary expansion of the program it uses to track foreign nationals living in the country—over 700,000 of whom overstayed their visas last year.
The DHS also claims that subjecting everyone to the scans is necessary, because maintaining separate procedures for citizens and noncitizens at boarding (as is done with international arrivals) would be too cumbersome.
Currently, security and airline agents repeatedly check passengers’ passports throughout the departure process, but they can only compare the passenger to the photo on their passport. Face scans will be able to confirm the passenger’s identity, even if the physical passport has been tampered with and displays an imposter’s photo.
What’s the problem?
The DHS states that the photos of American citizens will be discarded after two weeks, but John Wagner, the man in charge of the program, doesn’t rule out storing them for longer in the future. In combination with other government databases, a database of airport face scans would constitute a significant step toward enabling the government to continuously track its citizens. This kind of data presents a serious temptation to hackers as well as overzealous government agents.
There are other would-be issues as well with the technology involved. Although the program is supposed to make boarding more efficient, facial recognition software is imperfect, with estimates of inaccuracy ranging from one to ten percent.
Even at the most optimistic estimate of 99 percent accuracy, the software would mistakenly flag up to six passengers on every 747 as a mismatch against their passports. Further, the software is less accurate when analyzing darker skin tones, potentially exacerbating inequities in the way racial minorities are treated by airport security.
Since 2001, the American Civil Liberties Union has opposed facial recognition software in U.S. airports, citing not only privacy concerns but also flaws in the technology that make it ineffective and create a false sense of security.
The Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on the progress of the face scanning program on July 12, 2017. The DHS hopes to begin using the biometric exit system at all airports with international flights in 2018.
Once this system is implemented, any citizens who don’t want to submit to face scanning will need to avoid international flights.