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ACLU sues U.S. government agencies for records on facial biometrics deployments and plans

ACLU sues U.S. government agencies for records on facial biometrics deployments and plans

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is suing the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, accusing Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) of operating “a secret plan” to track all people at airports with facial recognition. The rights advocacy group says the degree of secrecy the agencies’ programs have been carried out under is excessive and undemocratic, and precludes the possibility of meaningful oversight or accountability.

The complaint was filed in the District Court for the Southern District of New York, and asks the court to force DHS, CBP, the TSA and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to produce records about the implementation of facial recognition in airports, along with future plans. The goal, according to the ACLU, is to bring the contracts the government has with other air travel stakeholder groups to public scrutiny.

In a blog post, the ACLU warns that widespread use of facial recognition poses a risk to privacy and civil liberties, that CBP and the TSA have previously been caught tracking and spying on journalists, that little is known about the programs, and also warns about mission creep, writing; “it’s only a matter of time before the government cites its use at airports as a basis for deploying it elsewhere.”

The ACLU notes that CBP had scanned 20 million travelers’ facial biometrics as of June, 2019. The agency also proposed expanding the Biometric Entry/Exit program to include mandatory scans of U.S. citizens late last year, though the plan was quickly abandoned.

“That we even need to go to court to pry out this information further demonstrates why lawmakers urgently need to halt law- and immigration-enforcement use of this technology,” ACLU Staff Attorney Ashley Gorski writes. “There can be no meaningful oversight or accountability with such excessive, undemocratic secrecy.”

ICAO rules on passenger information sharing, which require the sharing of facial images of all international travellers, are not mentioned in the blog post or the official complaint.

The Wall Street Journal points out that the ACLU also has a pending suit against the Justice Department, FBI, and DEA seeking records on their use of facial recognition.

CBP plans to process nearly all air passengers departing the U.S. with its Biometric Exit system by 2023. DHS Deputy Executive Assistant Commissioner John Wagner recently told Biometric Update that the agency needs to be clearer with the public and policy-makers about what it is doing, and how and why it is doing so with facial recognition.

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