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A sketchy assessment of US border facial recognition systems


This week, and not for the first time, privacy advocates tried to convince the U.S. government that it should not use facial recognition systems at ports of entry.

This time, it was the House of Representatives border security subcommittee, meeting to assess the Customs and Border Protection agency’s use of one-to-one facial recognition. Unfortunately, little information was presented that has not been public for some time.

Speaking to the panel were a director at the Government Accounting Office (the CBP has to communicate better), a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution (fairness and equity need more attention), a privacy advocate (the CBP should not have the tech) and a port-security consulting firm (good progress). You can watch it here.

No one from the Department of Homeland Security – of which CBP is a subset — spoke.

Rebecca Gambler, director of the GAO’s homeland security and justice team, told the representatives that has made progress with program expansion and policies, but it is uneven.

The accounting office’s job is to audit, evaluate and investigate operations, has published a number of findings over the years about facial recognition use by the government.

Arriving international air travelers can be biometrically scanned on landing in the United States, for example, Gambler said. And the 32 airports that use the technology on people leaving the country exceed system accuracy goals.

Those systems, however, fell short of department goals to capture at least 97 percent of travelers’ photographs. And while privacy principles have become policy, signage about face biometric systems and about how to opt out is not up to par.

More audits of systems and those related systems of third parties – such as airlines – need to be conducted to make sure there is no misuse of the systems or the data, too, she said.

Nicol Turner Lee, a senior fellow of governance studies at Brookings, said inclusion is important – down to making sure contractors and subcontractors practice it. Facial recognition is hamstrung if it cannot recognize everyone passing a camera.

Daniel Tanciar, chief innovation officer for Pangiam Strategic Consulting and a 16-year veteran of the CBP, said the agency scanned more than 100 million people ‘s faces from 2018 to 2021, identifying almost 1,000 imposters. It has also “made progress” on bolstering privacy, civil liberties and data security.

The heavy in the proceedings was Jeramie Scott, senior counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center, or EPIC.

Scott said the CBP has not been authorized to use facial recognition systems on U.S. nationals and yet it does so. With that as a backdrop, he said it is hard to believe government statements that Border Protection’s system will not share its database or use another department’s database at ports of entry without the consent of traveler.

If facial recognition systems cannot be recalled from ports, Scott said, Congress must make sure scans are only one-to-one, which does not require a database or a cloud connection.

Also, legislators need to ban the use of third-party face scraping services.

Congress should also stop CBP’s face scanning systems from being used for criminal leads by any part of the Homeland Security department, Scott said.

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