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The Government's Nightmare Vision for Face Recognition at Airports and Beyond

A passenger using a facial recognition kiosk in the background with a U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer watching in the foreground.
A CBP airport face recognition program is poised to expand into American life.
A passenger using a facial recognition kiosk in the background with a U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer watching in the foreground.
Jay Stanley,
Senior Policy Analyst,
ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project
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February 6, 2020

The Department of Homeland Security has a scary vision for expanding face recognition surveillance into our everyday lives, threatening a dystopian future in which the technology is used throughout our public spaces to scrutinize our identity, check us against watchlists, record our movements, and more. Work on building the infrastructure for this pervasive monitoring has already started, with U.S. Customs and Border Protection currently operating a face recognition system at the gates of departing international flights.  

There is ample reason to be alarmed. Face recognition technology is riddled with bias and inaccuracies, and CBP’s program will likely result in harms ranging from missed flights to lengthy interrogations, or worse. And more broadly, face recognition technology threatens to supercharge Homeland Security’s abusive practices, which have included detaining and interrogating journalists reporting on border conditions, targeting travelers based on national origin, and terrorizing immigrant communities.

Here in the United States, DHS has already laid out — and begun implementing — a very clear plan to expand face surveillance. If we allow the agency to move forward with its plan, there are all too many reasons to think that will lead our society down a dangerous path.

Here is what that pathway looks like, in five steps:

1. Expanding CBP’s existing face recognition system to TSA checkpoints nationwide

CBP’s current program, called the Traveler Verification Service (TVS), is limited to international departure gates at a growing number of U.S. airports. Departing international passengers pose for a photograph at the aircraft gate. The photo is then compared to a pre-assembled gallery, stored in the cloud, of government mug shots (mostly passport and visa photos) of all the passengers registered for that flight. Face recognition is used to make sure the photo of the person posing matches someone in the gallery.

But that’s just the beginning. CBP has started a “demonstration program” aimed at integrating its TVS face recognition program into TSA security checkpoints for passengers who have tickets for “specified international flights.” The TSA is also looking at using CBP’s infrastructure to roll out face recognition for PreCheck travelers. Extending the TVS program beyond aircraft gates to TSA checkpoints and elsewhere would mean building an infrastructure of cameras and devices that could then be scaled up, making it much easier for face scanning to expand.

2. Putting all fliers through the face tracking system

Once CBP’s infrastructure is in place at TSA checkpoints and elsewhere, the government has plans to start tracking the faces of more and more of the over two million passengers who pass through the TSA’s security checkpoints every day — and eventually all. A strategic roadmap that the TSA issued in 2018 directs the agency to move beyond PreCheck passengers and push the general traveling public into face recognition systems. The goal is for these systems to be integrated with other parts of DHS as well as industry partners

3. Making face scans mandatory

Right now, CBP says that submitting to its face surveillance system is optional for American citizens, butthere is ample reason to suspect that the government will want to make the face recognition checks mandatory for all. CBP has already said it plans to make face recognition mandatory for noncitizens. A very similar process happened with the TSA’s body scanners: When they were new and controversial, the agency emphasized that they were voluntary, but after controversy died down, TSA quietly made them mandatory.

4. Running faces against watchlists

Once face surveillance becomes entrenched at TSA checkpoints, there will be even more pressure to turn those checkpoints into broader law enforcement checkpoints where people are subject to criminal, immigration, and intelligence watchlist checks. Already CBP said it planned to start running some passenger photos through a biometric watchlist. As such checks expand, pressure will build to try to identify everyone from parole violators to deadbeat dads. And as the number of watchlist checks increases, so would the number of random Americans who get mistaken for somebody on those watchlists.

5. Expanding beyond the airport

If face surveillance becomes pervasive in airports, we can expect to see it expand outward. Airport bag searches were new in American life when they were first introduced in the 1960s and 1970s, and since then, they’ve expanded throughout American life to many office buildings, schools, museums, sports stadiums, and public gatherings. Face recognition, too, is likely to follow this path toward the “airportization of American life.”

In China, the government has installed face surveillance checkpoints at key ports of entry to track and target ethnic minorities, and monitor people across the country. We don’t want to see anything like that happen in our country. CBP’s TVS program is the first government face recognition checkpoint in American history, and if we decide to let its deployment continue, where will that lead? We don’t have to wonder because the government has already told us much of the story. But there’s still a lot more the public needs to know, which is why we’ve asked the government to turn over documents about the program’s implementation and future. At the same time, we’re calling on Congress to press pause on the use of face surveillance for law enforcement and immigration enforcement purposes before it forever alters our free society.

An ACLU white paper on the expansion of CBP’s face recognition program is available here.

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