ACLU, Civil Rights Groups Call on DHS to Abandon Proposed Expansion of Face Surveillance at Airports

March 10, 2021 12:00 pm

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WASHINGTON — The American Civil Liberties Union and a coalition of more than 20 civil rights organizations are calling on the Department of Homeland Security and Customs and Border Protection to withdraw a proposed regulation that would dramatically expand the use of face recognition technology at airports and the border. The proposed regulation would allow CBP to require all noncitizen travelers entering and exiting the United States to submit to face recognition.

In a letter sent today to Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas, the organizations highlight the dangers of face surveillance, which has been shown to disproportionately harm communities of color and has led to the wrongful arrest of at least three Black men. The organizations urge Mayorkas to withdraw the proposed regulation and suspend the use of face recognition technology on travelers.

“This proposed rule poses grave risks to the privacy of immigrants and all visitors to the United States, giving the government a dangerous tool that could allow it to track everyday movements and private associations,” said Ashley Gorski, senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s National Security Project. “No government agency should have that power. And especially not CBP, given its record of separating families, profoundly harming people it detains, and profiling on the basis of ethnicity and religion. CBP’s use of this technology will undoubtedly harm immigrants and communities of color the most.”

Under the proposed regulation, all noncitizen travelers, including children, may be required to be photographed upon entry and departure from the United States. U.S. citizen travelers who do not affirmatively opt out may be photographed as well. CBP would harvest “faceprints” from these images — precise measurements of the unique facial geometry of each photographed traveler — and then apply a face-matching algorithm to travelers, comparing their faceprint to a gallery of other images in the government’s possession. DHS plans to store all the faceprints it collects in a database for up to 75 years, where they may be used by federal, state, and local law enforcement to identify individuals for purposes unrelated to their travel.

Unlike other forms of identity verification, faceprints can be collected covertly, at a distance, and without consent. And because facial geometry is unique to each person and faces are typically exposed, the collection of faceprints poses a significant risk of persistent surveillance that could allow the U.S. government and others to track our movements wherever we go.

In December, the ACLU and other civil society organizations submitted a comment in strong opposition to the proposed rule, arguing that the massive expansion of the government’s use of face recognition technology would endanger the rights of tens of millions of immigrants and visitors to the United States. In February, the Biden-Harris administration announced that CBP would reopen the comment period on the controversial proposed regulations, potentially a sign that DHS and CBP intend to proceed with the deployment of face surveillance at airports nationwide.

The ACLU for years has been leading a nationwide effort to defend privacy rights and civil liberties against the growing threat of face surveillance. More than a dozen jurisdictions have banned law enforcement use of face recognition technology as part of ACLU-led campaigns, and most recently we called on President Biden to impose a moratorium on the use of the technology by the federal government.

The letter is here:

A December 2020 blog on the proposed rule is here:

The ACLU’s petition calling on President Biden to halt federal use of face recognition is here:

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