Civil rights groups demand CBP stops facial recognition expansion at airports

The ACLU, Electronic Frontier Foundation and others objected to a DHS proposal.

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International passengers arrive at Miami international Airport where they are screened by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) using facial biometrics to automate manual document checks required for admission into the U.S. Friday, Nov. 20, 2020, in Miami. Miami International Airport is the latest airport to provide Simplified Arrival airport-wide. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

The American Civil Liberties Union, Electronic Frontier Foundation and more than a dozen other civil rights groups have objected to Customs and Border Protection's plan to expand use of facial recognition at border entry and exit points. 

The Department of Homeland Security proposed a rule change last month that would authorize CBP to photograph foreign nationals at any point of departure, including airports and seaports. Those captured images can be used to create faceprints.

Under the current rules, non-citizens may only be required to provide biometric data at land ports and up to 15 airports and seaports as part of pilot programs. DHS aims to lift the limit on the number of entry points where the program can take place and to remove references to "pilot programs" from the rules. US citizens can opt out of biometric scans when they enter or exit the country.

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"This plan is unjustified, unnecessary, and dangerous," Ashley Gorski, an ACLU senior staff attorney, wrote. "Unlike fingerprints and many other biometrics, faceprints can be collected covertly, at a distance, and without our consent."

Gorski notes that faceprints can be stored for up to 75 years and that others have access to that database, including federal, state and local law enforcement agencies as well as foreign governments. "CBP says it will apply a face-matching algorithm to travelers, comparing their faceprints to a gallery of other images in the government’s possession," Gorski wrote. That, according to the civil rights groups' filing, "could enable systematic surveillance" by other agencies and governments.

The groups filed their objection on Monday, the day the comment period closes on the proposal. They argued against the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) on a number of grounds, including the fact it was published after a federal judge ruled Chad Wolf's appointment as acting DHS secretary was unlawful. "Given the defects in Mr. Wolf’s appointment, he cannot exercise the authority of the Acting Secretary, and, accordingly, the NPRM has no legal effect," the groups claimed in their comment.

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Civil rights groups demand CBP stops facial recognition expansion at airports