The surveillance state of America has a new forbidden love affair with facial recognition technology. In March 2017, President Donald Trump signed an executive order demanding government agencies deploy biometric-screening operations against every single person crossing the United States borders. The order specifically requested that by 2021, America’s top agencies and airports would harvest facial recognition data from “100% of all international passengers,” including American citizens — raising legitimate concerns of government overreach via constitutional assault.
This promise for a full-scale collection of physical data is now a cold reality, evidenced in 346 pages of government documents obtained by the non-profit research organization Electronic Privacy Information Center and published through BuzzFeed News. The investigation found that U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) have begun a secret initiative to implement a “biometric entry-exit system” where facial recognition technology is used against travellers aboard 16,300 flights per week — meaning over 100 million passengers across the globe will have their anatomy measured and stored away for the rainy day of big government.
Upon searching through the documents, journalist Davey Alba discovered the program “explicitly states” there are to be “no limits” as to how the agencies and their partnering airlines can use the harvested data. The government wouldn’t need to follow the laws of due process — where warrants, probable cause and evidence are needed to investigate an offending subject — it’s just an unspoken requirement of travel these institutions can use at will.
“CBP is solving a security challenge by adding convenience for travellers,” a federal spokesperson told BuzzFeed News, trying to reframe the conversation as an issue of innovation. “By partnering with airports and airlines to provide a secure stand-alone system that works quickly and reliably, which they will integrate into their boarding process, CBP does not have to rebuild everything from the ground up as we drive innovation across the travel experience.”
When later questioned on enforcing current policies around data sharing, “ which requires the agency to solicit public feedback before adopting technology,” the CBP official failed to explain anything beyond their assurances of their retainment of photos of non-citizens “for up to 14 days” just for “evaluation of the technology” and “assurance of the accuracy of the algorithms”, nothing nefarious to see here, you get the point. As noted by Alba, it’s easy to see how this technology will likely be paired with “facial matching A.I.” used by the government, which has previously raised concerns of accuracy among experts working in the field of artificial intelligence.
The report points to when the American Civil Liberties Union reported that Amazon’s facial recognition technology falsely matched 28 members of Congress with arrest mugshots — disproportionately attributing people of colour with criminals despite no likeness. The technology, which goes by the name Rekognition, is currently used by the Sheriff’s Office of Oregon, Washington County, meanwhile, other potential clients remain undisclosed.
“An identification — whether accurate or not — could cost people their freedom or even their lives,” the ACLU explained in their statement last year. “People of color are already disproportionately harmed by police practices, and it’s easy to see how [such technology] could exacerbate that. Congress must take these threats seriously, hit the brakes, and enact a moratorium on law enforcement use of face recognition. This technology shouldn’t be used until the harms are fully considered and all necessary steps are taken to prevent them from harming vulnerable communities.”
“Facial recognition is becoming normalized as an infrastructure for checkpoint control,” added Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst for the ACLU and a privacy advocate participating in meetings with the CBP, who spoke with BuzzFeed earlier this week. “It’s an extremely powerful surveillance technology that has the potential to do things never before done in human history. Yet the government is hurtling along a path towards its broad deployment — and in this case, a deployment that seems quite unjustified and unnecessary.”
It could also be illegal, echoing the privacy invasions of nations such as China where facial recognition systems have forced over 2.5 million people of the Muslim minority population to have their identity harvested without due process. “We have to be concerned about those profiles being kept in databases that are not well secured,” said Patrick Hunter, a director at the software security group One Identity, speaking with Forbes. “Where is the governance on these systems? Who is going to make sure that all those third parties are not breaking international laws? Government agencies may be exempt from GDPR, but third parties may not. These databases will store much more valuable information than simple username and passwords, and people’s biometrics could be used in more sophisticated identity thefts.”
These infringements of privacy rights aren’t exclusive to untrustworthy third parties. In 2016, the FBI issued a proposal for the government to make an exemption to biometric-screening data being subject to transparency provisions under The Privacy Act of 1974, requiring federal agencies to share the data they collect with individuals to afford them their legal right to know of the evidence being used against them and to judge whether it’s being used in a just way in accordance with the law. As reported by The Intercept, this exemption would have left evidence used in 70,783,318 criminal records and 38,514,954 civil records a secret for only available for big brother’s eye.
By design, the government wants to use this data with complete liberty they’d never afford to their own citizens, the governed who have a human right to their own biological data and knowledge as to how it’d be used to enforce laws against their own person. You’ll never have the government admit this, as the only response the CBP spokesperson could offer was their promise to “protect the privacy of all travellers and issue several Privacy Impact Assessments related to [its biometric entry-exit program],” which we have to take at their own word.
Outside of the Privacy Act — where facial searches are the norm but require subjects know of their harvested data — there are neither laws or court judgements which have determined whether facial recognition is a privacy issue protected as a fundamental right under the Fourth Amendment. As the policy continues to be rolled out across the top U.S. cities, such as Atlanta, New York City, Boston, San Jose, Chicago, and two airports in Houston and major airlines, which include Delta, JetBlue, British Airways, Lufthansa, and American Airlines, privacy advocates should demand proper checks and balances before the roll-out of a new system ready to collect their face as though it was their own. This is no horror movie, this is America.
Thanks for reading! This article was originally published for TrigTent.com, a bipartisan media platform for political and social commentary, truly diverse viewpoints and facts that don’t kowtow to political correctness.
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