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US Face Scanning Program Concerns Privacy Groups


U.S. Customs and Border Protection supervisor Erik Gordon, left, helps a passenger at a new facial recognition kiosks before boarding a flight to Tokyo, Wednesday, July 12, 2017, at George Bush Intercontinental Airport, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)


U.S. officials want to scan the faces of all air travelers, including American citizens, leaving the country.

The Department of Homeland Security, or DHS, says it is the only way to successfully track non-immigrant foreigners. But privacy activists say it takes surveillance of innocent citizens to a new level.

DHS wants to expand face scan program

Since 2004, visitors to the U.S. have been required to submit to biometric identity scans. Currently, fingerprints and photographs are collected before entry into the country.

DHS now says it is ready to use face scans. The agency says the goal is to better follow people who overstay their visas and to strengthen security.

The agency says nearly 700,000 people overstayed their visas in 2016. That includes people who left the country one day late, or those for whom there is no departure record.

In May, DHS said in a privacy study of its Traveler Verification Service that it has been working on a biometric system for departing travelers since 2013. The agency has carried out tests at six U.S. airports in Boston, Chicago, Houston, Atlanta, New York City and Washington, DC.

During the tests, passengers were permitted not to take part. But the DHS report says that will not always be the case.

“The only way for an individual to ensure he or she is not subject to collection of biometric information when traveling internationally is to refrain from traveling,” the report says.

John Wagner is head of the program. He told the Associated Press that U.S. citizens leaving the country will have to submit to face scans.

Wagner says the agency has no plan to keep the biometric information longer than 14 days. However, that could change in the future with “privacy reviews and approvals.”

Jennifer Gabris is a spokesperson for Customs and Border Protection. She says officials have not examined if laws need to be changed to permit keeping the information longer.

Democratic Senator of Massachusetts Edward Markey said U.S. citizens should be able to choose to have their face scanned.

In an email message to the AP, Markey said he will closely watch the program. He wants to ensure that Americans can choose if they want to be subject to it.

Privacy activists concerned about the system

Alvaro Bedoya is the executive director of the Center on Privacy and Technology at Georgetown University. He says the government is ignoring privacy rules.

He said, “Congress authorized scans for foreign nationals. DHS heard that and decided to scan everyone. That’s not how a democracy is supposed to work.”

The Center on Privacy and Technology notes that many state and local law enforcement agencies in the U.S. have used face-recognition searches. Last year, half of all American adults, more than 117 million people had their information stored in a face recognition network.

Several federal agencies have had access to some of the face recognition network. The Federal Bureau of Investigation, or FBI, has already collected 30 million pictures in one database.

Dan Stein is president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform. His group supports greater immigration restrictions.

He said privacy concerns or concerns about the technology should not prevent the government from moving ahead with the program. U.S. citizens have already sacrificed much of their privacy as the price of fighting terrorists, he said.

Scanning all those faces is very complicated

The Department of Homeland Security’s program to scan faces of people leaving the country is expected to cost billions of dollars. And airports do not have a system to separate Americans from foreign visitors as they prepare to take flights out of the country.

Customs and Border Protection, part of DHS, says it is not practical to have separate boarding systems for citizens and non-citizens. It also says that combining U.S. citizen’s passports with face scans will ensure that no one travels on a passport that is not their own.

Face recognition technology, however, is not perfect. Different expressions on people’s faces could cause mistakes.

Anil Jain is a computer science professor at Michigan State University. He has said the most accurate systems fail 5 to 10 percent of the time.

Some experts say such a high rate of failure would cause big problems for airlines.

Australia offers facial recognition for travelers as an option for avoiding regular immigration controls for arriving and departing air travelers.

The European Union also is seeking limited use of face scans and fingerprint collection for some departing foreigners.

I’m Ashley Thompson. And I'm Mario Ritter.

Frank Bajak and David Koenig reported this story for AP. Mario Ritter adapted it for VOA Learning English with some additional materials. Hai Do was the editor.

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Words in This Story

surveillance –n. the act of watching people or developments often for law enforcement purposes

biometric –adj. involving the use or study of biological measurements such as appearance, height, weight, etc.

scans –n. the act of taking a digital picture of something with detailed information that can be shared

fingerprints –n. the impression of a person’s fingertips used for identification

authorize –v. to permit

database –n. a collection of information, usually digital, that can be searched and studied

hacking –n. secretly accessing digital information to take it or cause damage

option –n. to opportunity to choose between two or more possibilities

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