Just when you thought air travel couldn’t get any more invasive, authoritarian and downright miserable, the Department of Homeland Security and two U.S. carriers are determined to prove you wrong.
Yesterday, Harrison Rudolph, a law fellow at the Center on Privacy & Technology at Georgetown Law, wrote a very troubling article at Slate titled, DHS Is Starting to Scan Americans’ Faces Before They Get on International Flights. Here’s some of what we learned:
Decades ago, Congress mandated that federal authorities keep track of foreign nationals as they enter and leave the United States. If the government could record when every visitor stepped on and off of U.S. soil, so the thinking went, it could easily see whether a foreign national had overstayed a visa.
But in June of last year, without congressional authorization, and without consulting the public, the Department of Homeland Security started scanning the faces of Americans leaving the country, too.
You may have heard about new JetBlue or Delta programs that let passengers board their flights by submitting to a face recognition scan. Few realize, however, that these systems are actually the first phase of DHS’s “Biometric Exit” program.
For certain international flights from Atlanta and New York, DHS has partnered with Delta to bring mandatory face recognition scans to the boarding gate. The Delta system checks a passenger is supposed to be on the plane by comparing her face, captured by a kiosk at the boarding gate, to passenger manifest photos from State Department databases. It also checks passengers’ citizenship or immigration status. Meanwhile, in Boston, DHS has partnered with JetBlue to roll out a voluntary face recognition system for travelers flying to Aruba. In JetBlue’s case, you can actually get your face scanned instead of using a physical ticket.
While these systems differ in details, they have two things in common. First, they are laying the groundwork for a much broader, mandatory deployment of Biometric Exit across the country. Second, they scan the faces of everyone—including American citizens.
Treating U.S. citizens like foreign nationals contradicts years of congressional mandates. DHS has never consulted the American public about whether Americans should be subject to face recognition. That’s because Congress has never given Homeland Security permission to do it in the first place. Congress has passed Biometric Exit bills at least nine times. In each, it has been clear: This is a program meant for foreign nationals. In fact, when President Trump issued an executive order in January on Biometric Exit, it was actually reissued to clarify that it didn’t apply to American citizens.
Behind the scenes, DHS is already handling your face recognition photo in ways many travelers might find alarming. For instance, after JetBlue scans your face, your photo is temporarily stored in DHS’s threat modeling ecosystem. What is it doing there? While there is no indication right now that DHS is, for example, comparing your face against a hotlist of known or suspected terrorists, it’s easy to imagine DHS pulling the trigger. People with foreign-sounding names have already struggled for years with false matches on the No Fly List. Will people with “foreign-looking” faces encounter the same discrimination?
And this may only be the beginning. According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s John Wagner, Homeland Security is in internal negotiations to bring face recognition to the TSA security checkpoint.
What might mission creep look like? One possible scenario involves DHS deciding to search your face against state and local law enforcement databases. Would you be comfortable with your face being compared to the faces of wanted criminals simply because you flew home to see your parents? Or maybe DHS could decide to share your face with the FBI. That could mean your face being compared with unknown suspects in security camera footage. Imagine being investigated for a crime you didn’t commit because, while passing through the airport, an algorithm matched your face to a suspect in a grainy surveillance video.
This is absolutely absurd.
Meanwhile, here’s Delta’s announcement of the facial-recognition test. They write it as if customers will be excited about this Orwellian surveillance.
Delta customers departing Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta airport and New York-JFK for international destinations this summer will be part of a test that captures customers’ biometrics upon exit of the United States at the same time they self-scan their boarding pass. Delta is the first airline Customs and Border Protection has partnered with to test new biometric exit immigration procedure and technology designed to give CBP an enhanced ability to record when visitors depart the U.S.
Delta’s tests, powered by biometric identification and management providers Vision-Box at JFK (pictured) and NEC Corporation of America at ATL, confirms passenger identity using advanced facial recognition technology and Delta ticketing information in a single, automated, reliable and highly secure solution. Upon successful screening at JFK, the eGate will open for individual customers to pass into the boarding area. In Atlanta, a different, self-contained unit will capture and verify customer’s identity before the customer continues on to boarding. All customer data is securely managed by CBP.
“Delta is always willing to partner with the CBP as it continues testing new technologies to improve its processes,” said Gil West, Delta’s Chief Operating Officer. “Its spirit of innovation aligns with Delta’s as we continue pioneering our own biometric customer experience solutions to enhance the airport travel experience for customers while giving employees the ability to focus on higher-touch customer needs.”
Delta’s JFK test launched June 12 at gate B24, while customers will start experiencing the one-step process in ATL at gates E10 and E12 later this summer. The Atlanta pilot will build on a year-long collaboration between Delta, NEC and CBP that has been testing facial recognition and boarding technology for exit screening on ATL gates F6 and F9.
“CBP has been working with our stakeholders to build a simplified, but secure travel process that not only meets the biometric exit mandate, but also aligns with CBP’s and the travel industry’s modernization efforts,” said John Wagner, Deputy Executive Assistant Commissioner, Office of Field Operations, CBP. “We are happy to be working with partners, like Delta, to expand the use of facial biometric technology to create an innovative, more efficient travel experience for passengers.”
Technology providers Vision-Box and NEC added:
“Vision-Box is excited to partner with Delta to provide an innovative self-boarding e-Gate system that combines airline boarding and biometric exit capture capabilities in a single process,” said Miguel Leitmann, Vision-Box CEO. “Passenger experience, high biometric accuracy and personal data protection are among the key metrics the pilot is addressing in order to establish a foundation to scale up to other airports.”
NEC Corporate of America Senior Vice President Raffie Beroukhim said, “Utilization of biometrics is perhaps the only means of balancing increased safety and security with passenger convenience. As a leading provider of such technologies, NEC is proud of the partnership with Delta and CBP in Atlanta, the progress made to date, and further potential in improving both safety and passenger convenience.”
If you fly Delta, you may want to make your opinions on this issue crystal clear.