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UPDATED: Homeland Security no longer wants to scan your face at airports

Airport passport-control kiosks at Los Angeles International Airport in 2017.
(Image credit: ShutterStockStudio/Shutterstock)

UPDATED: The Customs and Border Protection section of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has issued a statement that it no longer seeks to require that U.S. citizens use facial-recognition kiosks when entering and exiting the United States. More at the end of this story, which was originally published Dec. 3, 2019. 

When international travelers land at many U.S. airports, they can walk up to an electronic kiosk, insert their passport into the machine and smile into the camera. The kiosk compares their face to the photo of the passport holder. 

If there's a match and the visitor is a citizen of the U.S., Canada, or 40-odd other countries, the visitor is admitted into the United States. The same procedure applies when leaving the country to board international flights. Similar systems are widely used around the world, and for the most part, they work well.

But until now, U.S. citizens and permanent residents have had the option of skipping the facial-recognition kiosks at U.S. airports. They can instead present their passports directly to a Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agent. A rule change proposed by the Department of Homeland Security may do away with that opt-out.

"DHS is proposing to amend the regulations to provide that all travelers, including U.S. citizens, may be required to be photographed upon entry and/or departure," reads the public document detailing the rule change. The rule will almost certainly go into effect after a period of public comment.

A privacy risk or not?

Naturally, the American Civil Liberties Union is not happy. 

"Time and again, the government told the public and members of Congress that U.S. citizens would not be required to submit to this intrusive surveillance technology as a condition of traveling," ACLU senior policy analyst Jay Stanley told TechCrunch.

"The government's insistence on hurtling forward with a large-scale deployment of this powerful surveillance technology raises profound privacy concerns," Stanley told CNN.

You're gonna love it, don't worry

But here's the dirty little secret about border facial-recognition kiosks: Using one is a heck of a lot better than waiting in line for a CBP agent to look at your passport. 

Is it a privacy risk? No -- the kiosk matches your face to the passport photo that the government already has on file. 

"Even if you opt out of the facial recognition at the airport, your photo is still part of that gallery" created by DHS from passport photos of everyone on a flight's passenger manifest, the Electronic Privacy Information Center's Jeramie Scott told USA Today recently.

Is the system tracking your movements? Of course it is -- that's what passport control is supposed to do. That's also why the DHS uses the kiosks at departure lounges, to make sure foreign visitors do leave the U.S.

"CBP does not biometrically track U.S. citizens," the agency told USA Today. "Facial biometric processing at ports of entry only replaces current manual comparison using the travel document."

Should U.S. residents be allowed to opt out of using these kiosks? I think so. But I don't see what the advantage is. The human CBP agent will scan your passport too, and may insist on taking your photo as well. 

DHS says that its reasons for potentially ending the opt-out are to create "a seamless biometric entry-exit system" and "prevent persons attempting to fraudulently use U.S. travel documents," i.e. to spot someone falsely using a U.S. passport or a fake passport.

The DHS has been working on biometric identification for non-residents since the mid-1990s, but the program became more imperative following the 9/11 attacks. Nearly 20 years later, the program is far from being universally deployed at U.S. ports of entry, although a presidential executive order in March 2017 gave it a bit of a kick in the pants.

I've used such systems at airports in both the U.S. and in Europe, and they are a breeze. You walk up to the kiosk, insert your passport, look into the camera and you're done. Welcome to Europe. It takes 30 seconds.

Mission creep

One of the ACLU's most compelling arguments against these facial-recognition kiosks is that their use will spread beyond border control. That seems to be coming true — the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), a very different agency from Customs and Border Protection, is already testing using such facial-recognition technology on domestic flights

Bear in mind that you don't need a passport to travel within the U.S. Millions of Americans who regularly fly domestically don't have passports. So what kind of photo are these domestic-flight kiosks comparing faces to? 

The photos are being compared "against an image taken from the passenger's identity document for passengers who opt to participate." This presumably means drivers' licenses or the other dozen or so forms of ID that adults over 18 need to present at airport check-in desks before they can fly.

But that's a whole 'nother argument. Right now, forcing U.S. citizens to use facial-recognition kiosks instead of presenting a passport to a CBP agent at international airports doesn't seem like much of an imposition.

UPDATE: Reversal of intent

On Dec. 5, CBP informed several media outlets that it would no longer seek to require that U.S. citizens use the facial-recognition kiosks when entering and exiting the United States. 

"There are no current plans to require U.S. citizens to provide photographs upon entry and exit from the United States," the agency told The Washington Post. "CBP intends to have the planned regulatory action regarding U.S. citizens removed from the unified agenda next time it is published.”

An agency spokesperson told TechCrunch that the rule change had been considered "because having separate processes for foreign nationals and U.S. citizens at ports of entry creates logistical and operational challenges that impact security, wait times and the traveler experience."

But the spokesperson added to TechCrunch: "Upon consultation with Congress and privacy experts, however, CBP determined that the best course of action is to continue to allow U.S. citizens to voluntarily participate in the biometric entry-exit program."