Facial Recognition at the Border Is Fueling Other Forms of Surveillance, Report Says

Facial recognition images taken at border crossings can be repurposed by government agencies and private companies, threatening human rights, the report warns.
Facial Recognition at the Border Is Fueling Other Forms of Surveillance, Report Says
Joe Raedle / Staff via Getty Images

Facial recognition systems at border crossings around the world can enable more invasive forms of surveillance by feeding biometric data about travellers to other government agencies and private companies without individuals' knowledge, a new report warns. 

Facial Recognition at a Crossroads: Transformation at Our Borders and Beyond, produced by the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic (CIPPIC), provides a stark analysis of how facial recognition technology is deployed at border crossings around the globe and explores what authorities are doing with the massive amounts of biometric information they collect. 


The report details how facial images captured at border crossings can be shared with other government agencies, private companies, and law enforcement, often without meaningful consent from travellers. The images can then be used for purposes ranging from identity verification to criminal investigation, despite the high error rate and proven biases associated with facial recognition software. 

"In many jurisdictions, facial recognition systems adopted at the border are in the process of being repurposed to achieve many unrelated public and private sector objectives," reads the report. It notes that the technology's "ability to identify otherwise anonymous individuals and pervasively link them to rich digital profiles" without individuals' knowledge or consent poses serious risks to human rights. 

Tamir Israel, a technology lawyer with CIPPIC who authored the report, pointed to Australia as an example of a country pushing to use facial images captured by border authorities for controversial purposes. 

"Australia rolled out facial recognition at the border and is now pushing legislation that would expand access to the facial image database to private companies, including phone companies and banks," to help identify new customers, Israel told Motherboard in a phone call. That legislation is currently under review.

In the U.S., the Trump administration has drafted a proposal that would allow the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees Customs and Border Protection, to dramatically expand the collection of biometric information, including facial recognition scans, from anyone who is not a full U.S. citizen. CBP, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees both CBP and ICE, have been given wide latitude by the Trump administration to operate all over the country, not just at the borders.


Israel noted that border zones are ideal environments for authorities to pressure individuals to agree to facial recognition, because people's rights are limited and incentives like faster check-in times are offered in exchange for biometric data. 

"The border is a coercive space and allows authorities to get high-quality facial images. It's the easiest place for the capability to take hold," Israel added. 

Facial Recognition at a Crossroads details how initiatives such as the International Air Transport Association's "OneID" proposal advance the use of facial recognition across every aspect of international air travel. In North America, the Future Borders Coalition—which counts the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, major Canadian airports, and dozens of travel and logistics providers as members—supports the roll-out of facial recognition at every point of entry between the U.S. and Canada. The group proposes international travelers use facial recognition smartphone apps to send their images to border security agencies before traveling. 

As with any sensitive digital information, the risk of hacking is real. A facial recognition pilot project rolled out by the Coalition in 2018 resulted in a hack and data breach that saw thousands of facial recognition images stolen, with some released on the dark web. 

In the private sector, companies in recent years have used facial recognition algorithms to create massive databases of facial images scraped from public websites before selling access to law enforcement and corporations, which use the images to complement their own facial recognition capabilities


Israel says that the world is at a pivotal moment in the evolution of facial recognition as social and economic factors foster the rapid adoption of the technology, creating the potential for negative impacts on individuals' rights. 

"We use facial recognition on our phones and on social media, which helps proponents present the technology as socially acceptable," Israel says. "Because facial recognition cameras can identify people from a distance, it can also be presented as less invasive" than other forms of biometrics, such as fingerprinting or iris scans, Israel added.

"Facial recognition is improving in accuracy, but it's still less accurate than other biometrics and errors are inevitable," Israel says. He notes that as authorities become more confident in using the technology, "It will be difficult for human decision makers to second-guess it when errors occur."

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