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Report questions necessity, effectiveness of Homeland Security biometric exit program’s facial scans


A recent report by Georgetown University’s Center on Privacy and Technology casts doubt on the propriety and accuracy of a Department of Homeland Security pilot program to gather facial recognition scans from passengers taking foreign flights.

DHS installed the system at nine airports under its biometric exit program without undergoing the required federal process for rule-making, according to the report, which calls the system an invasive surveillance tool.

The report says the system has high error rates, and often fails to verify women and African-Americans. Further, the report authors say neither Congress nor the DHS explained the need for the $1 billion program.

“For its part, DHS says that airport face scans are designed to verify the identities of travelers as they leave the country and stop impostors traveling under someone else’s identity,” the report authors write. “But DHS itself has repeatedly questioned ‘the additional value biometric air exit would provide’ compared with the status quo and the ‘overall value and cost of a biometric air exit capability,’ even as it has worked to build it.”

DHS officials have said that the program fulfills a long-standing mandate from Congress to prevent foreign visitors from remaining in the country beyond the terms of their visas.

Customs and Border Protection Deputy Executive Assistant Commissioner for Field Operations John Wagner said that the system correctly identifies over 90 percent of travellers, and has not shown gender or racial bias.

“Our job is to meet the mandate and build the system,” he told the New York Times. “The fact that Congress felt strong enough to set aside a billion dollars to get it done speaks to its need.”

Customs officials say the pilots have had successes, including identifying people travelling illegally with fake documents, according to the Times. Senators Edward J. Markey (D-MA) and Mike Lee (R-UT) expressed concerns in a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Kristjen Nielsen, and urged the program rollout to be delayed while the privacy and legal objections are addressed.

The Times reports that Wagner said Customs and Border Protection would participate in a federal process to address the concerns before completing the project’s implementation, but report author Laura Moy, deputy director of the Privacy and Technology Center, said the assurances from the agency are insufficient.

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