The Biden Administration is set to inherit a massive facial recognition infrastructure which was set into motion by the Trump administration.
In November, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) proposed a new rule that will exponentially expand the use of facial recognition surveillance at the border. The rule is now being opposed by several branches of the American Civil Liberties Union, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Fight for the Future, and other rights organizations. The ACLU says the rule change would threatens the right to privacy an anonymity, as well as disproportionately affect people of color and immigrants.
The CBP posted a notice announcing their intention to collect the faceprint of nearly every single non-U.S. citizen who enters or exits the United States. The rule also applies to children. This faceprint will then be stored on a government database for up to 75 years. This data could then be used by the Department of Homeland Security, foreign governments and federal, state, and local law enforcement to identify individuals for a variety of purposes.
The ACLU calls the plan “unjustified, unnecessary, and dangerous.” The ACLU says the problem is that faceprints can be collected in secret from a distance, without a person’s consent. The organization also warns that once a government has an individual’s faceprint “it creates a risk of a unique and unprecedented form of persistent surveillance.”
The U.S. Congress has never authorized the government to implement a massive data collection program for faceprints. Additionally, non-U.S. citizens entering the country are already subjected to fingerprint collection.
The latest notice for an expansion of facial recognition in the United States is a continuation of policies set forth by the CBP under the Trump administration. In 2017, the CBP announced plans to scan the faces of all flyers exiting the United States. The American Civil Liberties Union reported:
U.S. Customs and Border Protection has launched a “Traveler Verification Service” (TVS) that envisions applying face recognition to all airline passengers, including U.S. citizens, boarding flights exiting the United States. This system raises very serious privacy issues.
The only publicly available information on the program came from a privacy impact statement the Department of Homeland Security issued on the program, and a briefing CBP Deputy Executive Assistant Commissioner John Wagner gave to privacy advocates in Washington this week. The CBP envisions a system where airports install cameras at boarding gates to take pictures of all passengers leaving and entering the country. The pictures will have facial recognition software applied to them.
The Traveler Verification Service is currently being tested at six airports, including Boston Logan, New York JFK, Dulles in D.C., Hartsfield-Jackson in Atlanta, Chicago O’Hare, and Bush in Houston. TVS itself is part of the larger “Biometric Entry/Exit” program which was created in response to a congressional requirement to use biometrics to track individuals who may have overstayed their visas.
At the time, the ACLU called on airlines to begin resisting the implementation of this program and called for Congressional approval. The ACLU demanded private airlines insist on transparency from the DHS, but to allow any passenger to opt out of the program.
The use of biometrics is only the latest infringement on privacy and liberty at the airport. In June 2017, Activist Post reported that the TSA was testing out new measures that require passengers to remove books and paper goods from their carry-on luggage. According to reports from The Wall Street Journal and Sacramento Bee, the TSA began to roll out these new invasive policies that same year in 2017.
The Rise of Face Recognition
The concern about facial recognition is not unwarranted. Readers have likely heard about how the Chinese Community Party uses facial recognition to monitor the people at their jobs, the homes, and in public. This technology has already been employed by the Chinese government in an effort to identify members of the Uighur Muslim community.
However, the threat of facial recognition is not simply a concern for Chinese residents. The American public (and most of the Western world) is increasingly under facial recognition surveillance in the post-9/11 era. Meanwhile, the COVID-19 era has led to an increase in facial recognition in schools and on the streets in the name of fighting the “war on germs.”
The rise of facial recognition predates the COVID-19 panic. On January 3 of this year, CBP and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) released a Privacy Impact Assessment detailing plans to collect DNA from individuals temporarily detained at border crossings. Border Patrol launched the 90 day pilot program on Monday at the Canadian border near Detroit and at the official port of entry at Eagle Pass, Texas. After the pilot period the program will be expanded nationwide.
Later that month, forty organizations signed a letter calling on an independent government watchdog to recommend a ban on U.S. government use of facial recognition technology. The letter was drafted by the digital privacy advocacy group Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) and signed by organizations including the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Color of Change, Fight for the Future, Popular Resistance, and the Consumer Federation of America.
The letter calls on the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB) to “recommend to the President and the Secretary of Homeland Security the suspension of facial recognition systems, pending further review.“
As far back as June 2019, the Georgetown Law Center on Privacy & Technology released a report titled “America Under Watch: Face Surveillance in the United States” which called for a moratorium on facial recognition technology. As I warned in July 2019, the rise of face recognition should scare all Americans.
Over four years, Donald Trump and his administration have expanded the surveillance state across the United States and along the border. The Trump admin inherited the surveillance and police state from the Obama administration in the same way Obama inherited the situation from George W. Bush. Now, on the eve of Biden’s inauguration, the ordained President-elect is poised to continue the police state-surveillance state agenda.
Will Biden expand the facial recognition infrastructure in the same fashion that Donald Trump did after Obama? Only time will tell.