If you board an international flight in Boston, New York, Houston, or other major American airports, there’s a good chance that the Department of Homeland Security will scan your face before you board. But the technology is flawed, and it’s not to be used on U.S. citizens, according to privacy-law experts and senators now challenging its legality.
This “biometric exit” program was approved by Congress a few years ago and DHS started testing it at airports in 2015, but it was meant to track immigrants. “It’s a program authorized by Congress for foreign nationals. Congress never gave permission to scan faces of American citizens,” Harrison Rudolph, lead author of a new study by Georgetown Law School’s Center on Privacy & Technology, told VICE News. “That sort of mission creep, a movement from a program to track immigrants and now Americans, it’s emblematic. This program is the poster child of systems meant to track immigrants that are now tracking citizens.”
The questionable legality of the program and its limited accuracy have prompted a rare bipartisan response from Congress. Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Ed Markey and Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee penned a letter to DHS on Thursday, asking it to halt expansion of the program and answer questions about its privacy implications and legality.
“Americans should not have to choose between travelling internationally and ensuring the security of their personal data,” Lee and Markey said, asking for a response from DHS by Jan. 18.
The Georgetown study further says Congress and DHS never really justified the program, and the face-scanning technology is not reliable.
“According to DHS’ own data, DHS’ face recognition systems erroneously reject as many as 1 in 25 travelers using valid credentials,” the study said. “At this high rate, DHS’ error-prone face scanning system could cause 1,632 passengers to be wrongfully delayed or denied boarding every day at New York’s John F. Kennedy (JFK) International Airport alone.”
Biometric entry systems — collecting this kind of data when foreigners come into the U.S. — have been implemented in the U.S. for years at Passport Control, and Customs and Border Patrol (which is a DHS department) officially announced that it would be “testing” biometric exit at 10 airports back in 2015, but it said the testing would not apply to U.S. citizens.
The thinking behind biometric exit programs is that it catches immigrants who overstay their visas and use an impostor to exit the country to throw off Immigration and Customs Enforcement. But the study’s authors say “DHS has only ever published limited and anecdotal evidence of this.
“For example, one Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agent reportedly stated that the brother of a foreign national had traveled under his identity to generate a false exit record,” the study said.
So far, DHS has not disclosed much public information about the program — including the Memorandums of Understanding the agency has reached with airlines about the cost and implementation of face-scanning technology. A representative for DHS did not immediately respond to a request for comment from VICE News.