Customs’ facial recognition technology trial raises privacy concerns

May 29, 2015 - 

The Department of Homeland Security confirmed that U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents will test facial recognition technology over the next three months in an effort to identify immigration violators, according to a report by CBS News.

The trial for the new technology will be used to find foreigners who stay in the United States past their allotted visiting time.

“We do see people trying to use the legitimate document, but it belonging to someone else, to conceal their identity, and we are vulnerable to that,” said John Wagner, Customs and Border Protection Deputy Assistant Commissioner.

Washington Dulles International Airport is one of the airports that will be testing new facial technology which compares photos in passports with travellers’ faces and calculates the matching rate.

In the event that the traveller presents another individual’s passport, the facial recognition system is able to spot the difference within seconds and immediately alerts the officer to investigate further.

This fall, customs agents will also begin collecting face and iris scans of all individuals entering and returning from Mexico on foot from a San Diego border crossing.

“Looking at things like iris or facial recognition helps us compare that person to the document and confirm their identity” to crosscheck against national watch lists, said Wagner.

The trial has raised concerns among privacy rights advocates who feel that the test projects could eventually lead to law enforcement agencies using biometrics to track all law abiding citizens.

“This is really just the beginning,” said Harley Geiger, Senior Counsel at the Center for Democracy and Technology. “The real concern is not so much this particular pilot program, it is that this particular pilot program is a step towards a larger program. Not just in ports of entry, but also in public places, mass transit systems throughout the domestic United States.”

The customs agency currently compares the photos of 250 people a day using the technology at Dulles.

This amounts to a total of 4,000 pictures of travelers that are stored on a secure database.

The photos are not shared with any third parties, and once the pilot project ends, they will all be deleted.

The customs agency will need to develop a new privacy policy before implementing the technology on a broader level.

However, officials said that since travellers are already required to show proof of identity when they enter the country, the technology would simply help to confirm this data.

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About Justin Lee

Justin Lee has been a contributor with Biometric Update since 2014. Previously, he was a staff writer for web hosting magazine and website, theWHIR. For more than a decade, Justin has written for various publications on issues relating to technology, arts and culture, and entertainment. Follow him on Twitter @BiometricJustin.