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Homeland Security Mulling Expanding Airport Facial Recognition to U.S. Citizens

By Kelly Hoggan

Facial recognition is increasingly being used at airports around the world.

The use of facial recognition technology to aid in preventing terrorists from entering the U.S. through airports and border checkpoints may receive wider use by the Department of Homeland Security. While facial recognition has increasingly been used at various top American airports to screen foreign travelers, DHS hasn’t yet required its use on U.S. citizens when they enter or leave the country. That could change, though, with the homeland security agency’s December 2nd announcement that it wants Americans to go through the same facial recognition screening as foreign travelers.

Timeline and Use

Homeland Security officials say that no immediate changes to the facial recognition rules are planned, though they expect to present a proposed rule that covers U.S. citizens next July. As we’ve noted recently, facial recognition – which works in conjunction with artificial intelligence, or AI – is more and more becoming a part of biometric security scanning and screening, especially among airlines and at airports. After scanning a foreign traveler’s thumbprint or retina pattern, for example, DHS uses its biometric alert database to verify their identity. Adding facial recognition to the menu will allow for even speedier processing at airports and border checkpoints, as the technology’s AI-powered systems can often verify a traveler’s identity within mere seconds.

Use by Airlines

Several U.S. airlines have also been experimenting with facial recognition for passengers boarding their international flights, though U.S. citizens can opt out of being photographed. Instead, their identities are verified using documents and/or other biometric measures, such as fingerprints. As it turns out, however, most Americans just submit to the facial recognition process used by those airlines.

Required for Foreign Travelers

Congress mandated several years ago that DHS create a biometric entry-exit system to verify the identity of international travelers. But the nation’s legislature was largely silent on whether the term “international travelers” also included Americans. DHS and federal law enforcement leaders, though, have maintained their belief that expanded use of biometric analysis such as facial recognition could more easily identify terrorists as well as prevent travel document fraud.

For its part, Homeland Security stated in a 2018 report that use of facial recognition technology, combined with stringent privacy safeguards, is the best method for verifying the identity of international travelers. The fact that identity verification waiting times using the DHS system have been very low is an added plus for both security personnel and the travelers being screened by it.

Successful Usage

Facial recognition is also currently being employed by DHS at two different border crossings in Texas as well as one in Arizona, where the face of every border crosser is scanned. Agency officials say that the facial recognition technology is working well, with seven imposters this year caught trying to enter the United States illegally through one or another airport. More than 200 people trying to cross the country’s Southwest border with Mexico have also been nabbed.

Allaying Privacy Concerns

DHS may face a battle when it comes to requiring Americans to submit to facial recognition scanning whenever they travel internationally. The American Civil Liberties Union and several other privacy advocates as well as several lawmakers have expressed concerns about the risk facial recognition may pose to U.S. citizens’ privacy rights. Homeland Security officials state that such risks are, by and large, eliminated at this point and that photos matching Americans to their identities are also deleted from their system within 12 hours or less.

Uncertain Chances for Now

The initial opposition to DHS’s recent announcement about expanding facial recognition to U.S. citizens traveling abroad has been vocal at times. It’s therefore an open question at present whether DHS will be able to expand its facial recognition capabilities to include Americans come next July. There’s little doubt, though, that the technology, in and of itself, works effectively and efficiently in seamlessly processing large numbers of travelers in a very short amount of time.

Kelly Hoggan, Founder and CEO of H4 Solutions, previously served as assistant administrator for operations at the Transportation Security Administration. In that role, he was responsible for aircraft and checkpoint security operations at the nation's 400-plus commercial airports.

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