A Blog by Jonathan Low


Oct 6, 2022

85 Percent Of Air Travelers Entering US Now Vetted By Facial Recognition

US Customs and Border Protection has quietly ramped up its use of facial recognition and intends to expand it until 100% of those entering and leaving the country have been photo-identified. 

And yes, there are privacy concerns. JL 

Heather Murphy reports in the New York Times:

In April, US Customs and Border Protection reached its goal of installing cameras next to customs officers in every international airport in the United States, with the goal of verifying virtually all incoming travelers by face, and building a related tool intended to spot foreign nationals lacking proper visas when they depart the country. 85% of the daily visitors arriving from abroad are now verified by face. Passengers on 26% of departing international flights are photographed, with the goal of processing travelers this way on 50% of flights by the end of 2023 and, “100% of flights within the next three years.”

Where did that self-service passport kiosk go? Why can’t I find the mobile passport line that used to let me speed through customs? Do I really have to wait to show a person my passport?

Over the last year, many travelers have found themselves asking these questions after landing in the United States, only to find systems they’d long relied on had disappeared.

“It felt bewildering that not only was the app not working, but there was no information on why not,” said Milena Rodban, 36, a geopolitical risk consultant, who was appalled to find herself standing amid thousands of people at Chicago O’Hare International Airport in August because the mobile passport line was nowhere to be found. She’d previously been so thrilled with the way a QR code, generated by the app, gave her access to a speedy, special line that she’d convinced several friends to download it.

A variety of theories have emerged to try to explain the mysterious disappearance of mobile passport lines and self-service kiosks. The actual answer, as revealed by interviews with customs agents, airport officials, contractors and a review of government budget and privacy documents, is connected to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s prioritization of a new facial recognition system. In April, the C.B.P. quietly reached its goal of installing cameras next to customs officers in every international airport in the United States, with the goal of verifying virtually all incoming travelers by face, and building a related tool intended to spot foreign nationals lacking proper visas when they depart the country.

“By and large, almost all travelers are going through some sort of biometric process on entry,” said Larry Panetta, the director of the biometric entry/exit program transformation.

The kiosks have been phased out because they didn’t verify faces. The mobile passport system will stick around, but allocating resources to it temporarily became less of a priority in some airports amid this massive — and divisive — overhaul of the agency’s approach to processing travelers.

Officials said that the new reliance on facial-recognition software will improve efficiency and security at ports of entry across the United States. But civil liberties and digital privacy groups said the changes represent fundamental threats to privacy, and that efficiency is therefore irrelevant.

No, though it might have seemed like they were.

All Americans returning to the United States from abroad over the past decade likely encountered a self-service kiosk. Some were silver with a pronounced curve. Others featured retro glowstick-esque lights. First rolled out in Chicago in 2013, the devices scanned passports, accepted customs declarations and enabled non-U.S. citizens — from select countries approved for self-service lines — to provide fingerprints.

But as eagerness to do more with facial verification grew, the kiosks became less appealing to some lawmakers and C.B.P. officials. Though they snapped photos, they did not analyze them.

“There was no way for us to determine if the individual was the true bearer of the passport,” said Frank Russo, the director of C.B.P. field operations in New York, other than “holding up the passport and then looking at the individual and saying, ‘I think it’s this person.’”

Reprogramming the machines to do more created logistical and security headaches, according to C.B.P. officials.

So in 2018, the agency began installing cameras in officers’ booths. This was fueled partly by a 2004 Congressional mandate prompted by the Sept. 11 attacks. The mandate directed the agency to create a biometric entry-exit system for foreign nationals. A 2016 bill allocating money that had to be used by 2027, and a 2017 order from then-President Donald Trump, contained within his ban on visitors from many Muslim countries, sped things up.

The pandemic further accelerated the transition by increasing interest in a more “touchless” system, said Matthew Davies, the executive director of the C.B.P.’s admissibility and passenger programs. Put another way: No one wanted to deal with cleaning the kiosks. All but a few airports have gotten rid of them. By 2023, they’ll all be gone, said Mr. Davies.

Sort of. The mobile passport program is here to stay, though lines are getting added to some airports and removed from others, said Matt Cornelius, the executive vice president of Airports Council International-North America, a trade association representing around 300 airports in the United States and Canada.

For those who have not heard of the mobile system, it is essentially an alternative to the more established line-skipping system, Global Entry. In order to utilize Global Entry, you must go through a $100 nonrefundable application process. If accepted, you look for a Global Entry kiosk upon arrival. (These are sticking around, though they are being transitioned to facial verification.)

With the mobile passport system, there is no application process or fee. Instead, travelers download an app and input their passport information. Upon arrival, they look for a mobile passport line, which is typically quite short.

As to why mobile lines disappeared recently, some locations “felt Simplified Arrival was going to be quicker,” Mr. Davies said, referring to the C.B.P.’s facial comparison system.

Other airports may have phased them out temporarily while making them more compatible, Mr. Davies said. Recently, the mobile passport system has begun relying on the same facial comparison program.

Around 85 percent of the 221,000 daily visitors arriving from abroad are now verified by face, according to C.B.P. officials. Passengers on around 26 percent of departing international flights are also photographed, with the goal of processing travelers this way on 50 percent of flights by the end of 2023 and, according to Mr. Panetta, “100 percent of flights within the next three years.”

On entry, when you get to an agent, if you are over the age of 14, a camera photographs your face. Technically, Americans can opt out, while foreign nationals are required to participate. But critics say that the agency has failed to make it clear that you can ask an agent to verify your identity the old way. On a recent evening, at John F. Kennedy International Airport, this alternative was outlined 16 lines down on a piece of paper taped to the side of the customs booth. The exemption for some minors and elders — travelers over 80 are not required to participate either — was not posted.

If you are a U.S. citizen, the agency is supposed to discard the photo within 12 hours. If you are not a citizen, the photo goes to the Homeland Advanced Recognition Technology System, or HART, the Department of Homeland Security’s new biometric database, according to Mr. Davies. If foreign nationals have previously provided fingerprints, facial verification eliminates the need to give them again.

Either way, an algorithm checks all faces against a collection of passport, visa and airport photos that C.B.P. has prepared of expected travelers. If the new photo matches an old photo, then travelers may not have to hand over their passport. If it doesn’t, the agent is supposed to compare the new photo to the photo stored in a chip within most passports; this will often be necessary if travelers are coming from countries that do not have to provide photos when applying for visas. If that fails, the agent may suspect that the traveler is using a stolen, borrowed or counterfeit passport.

There are, of course, legitimate reasons for a fail. Faces change with age and light, and algorithms mislead, particularly with Black and brown faces. At a Congressional hearing in July, Nicol Turner Lee, the director of the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution, pointed this out, noting that at least three Black men have been arrested because of faulty facial recognition.

When the program is used with departing passengers, typically airlines photograph passengers before they board an international flight to see if a traveler matches an existing photo on file. If no match is found, it tips off the C.B.P. that the person may have entered the country without a visa or going through border control, officials said.

Proponents of the new system say that the program streamlines and fortifies the process of entering the United States while also helping identify foreign travelers without visas on the way out.

Already the system has stopped around 1,600 “impostors” from entering the country through airports and land borders, according to C.B.P. representatives.

But some say it’s less about totals than what it could prevent.

“We don’t want another 9/11 in this country,” said Mr. Russo, who noted that the system frees up officers to focus on asking the “important questions that help us keep terrorists and drug smugglers out of the country.

Since 2017, the tool has also alerted the agency to 100,000 “overstays” — visitors who remained in the United States beyond the time that they were allocated — according to a C.B.P. report.


At the hearing in July, Jeramie D. Scott, the senior counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a nonprofit focused on privacy, called Simplified Arrival a “powerful and dangerous tool” that requires more federal oversight. In an interview, he argued that by using facial recognition on U.S. citizens and filling the database with Americans’ passport photos, the program is already overstepping, given that the underlying legislation focuses on foreign nationals. (C.B.P. officials noted that most passport fraud involves U.S. passports and that Americans can opt out.)

The American Civil Liberties Union takes a similar stance. “Because the widespread adoption of this technology would fundamentally change American society, C.B.P. should not be deploying it at airports — especially without express authorization from Congress,” said Ashley Gorski, a senior staff attorney for the organization’s National Security Project​.

Many civil liberties, digital privacy and immigrant rights groups have also raised concerns that the rapidly expanding HART database, which the system relies on, could be used to monitor people and supercharge the deportation system. Eventually the database is expected to contain DNA profiles, voice prints and other information provided by other federal and local agencies and foreign governments for some travelers, according to Homeland Security privacy documents. In May, around 40 organizations urged an Amazon subsidiary to refuse to host the database in the cloud as planned.

It may seem strange to phase out self-service kiosks during a time of labor shortages. But in interviews, C.B.P. officials disputed the notion that the new system would require more officers, suggesting that it simply altered their role. Previously, officers were still responsible for verifying identities after travelers obtained a printout from the kiosk. Plus, collecting paper customs declarations is no longer required; instead officers can “get a verbal answer” based on “what they feel they need to ask,” Mr. Panetta said.

Some did acknowledge, though, that until international travel fully rebounds, it will be difficult to assess efficiency.

As to whether biometrics will ever replace officers entirely, it’s unlikely, Mr. Cornelius said. That’s because of a law requiring customs agents to interact, at least briefly, with every single person at the border.


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