Aug 28 2018

CBP expands partnership with airlines on facial recognition

This month US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) posted the latest in a series of Privacy Impact Assessments (PIAs) for its Traveler Verification Service (TVS) program.

The  latest PIA gives notice (although not in the form required by Federal law) that CBP and its airline and airport  partners are carrying out a second expanded phase of “demonstrations” of TVS, an identity-as-a-service scheme designed to use automated recognition of images from a shared CBP/airline/airport database of facial photos for purposes including surveillance and control (for CBP) and business process automation and price personalization (for airlines and airports).

CBP (1) describes TVS as a “biometric exit” program, (2) describes the current use of TVS as merely a “demonstration”, (3) continues to claim that airlines and airports “have no interest in keeping or retaining” facial images any longer , or using them for any other purposes, than is required by CBP for “security”, and (4) says that U.S citizens aren’t required to submit to mug shots.

These claims are intended to lull the public into not protesting: “This is only a test, using photos for limited purposes. The photos will be deleted once you get on the plane, and not used for nay commercial or other purpose.” And so forth.

All that might be somewhat reassuring, if any of it were true. But  none of it is:

(1) “This is a ‘Biometric Exit’ program.”

References to “Biometric Exit” suggest that facial recognition will be used only for surveillance and control of foreigners leaving the US.  But TVS is already being used at TSA checkpoints, the same as any others used by passengers traveling entirely within the US. As with other DHS systems for ID and database-driven surveillance and control of travelers, the intent of the DHS is to deploy these schemes first against foreigners (who have the fewest rights to challenge them in US courts), then against US citizens traveling internationally, and then to all travelers including US citizens on domestic flights.

Use of automated facial recognition is intended by the DHS to become a routine element of the surveillance and control of all air travelers, foreign and domestic.  As the head of the CBP, Commissioner Kevin McAleenan, said in a press release in June 2018, “We are at a critical turning point in the implementation of a biometric entry-exit system, and we’ve found a path forward that transforms travel for all travelers.” [emphasis added]

(2) “This is only a demonstration.”

Calling the current deployment of automated facial recognition a “demonstration” doesn’t mean it’s a “test” (except, perhaps,  a test of whether the public will acquiesce, protest, or rebel) or that CBP and TSA haven’t yet decided on whether to deploy this system more widely.

On the contrary, as quoted above, CBP already believes that, “we’ve found a path forward”. This is not a test but a tightening of the ratchet of travel surveillance and control.

“Trial balloon” would be a better description than “demonstration” of what CBP and TSA are now doing. Given that all that is being “tested” is public opinion, it’s crucial for CBP and TSA to be met with protest and resistance wherever they try to trick travelers into “consent” to automated image-based surveillance and control of our movements.

(3) “Airlines and airports have no interest in retention or shared use of facial images.”

According to a report in the New York Times earlier this month, “John Wagner, the deputy executive assistant commissioner for the agency’s Office of Field Operations, said he believed that commercial carriers had ‘no interest in keeping or retaining’ the biometric data they collect, and the airlines have said they are not doing so.”

Wagner made the same claim when we and other civil liberties advocates met with him and other DHS officials in San Francisco in January 2018.

In reality, CBP officials know full well that airlines and airport operators are intensely interested in shared use of facial images.  CBP’s own website acknowledges as much:

CBP is leading the transformation of the travel experience, but we could never do this alone. Our airline industry and technology partners are playing a critical role. To date, CBP has demonstrated the facial matching service at ports from Virginia to Vegas to Miami. Our pilot programs with Delta, Jet Blue, British Airways, and partnerships with Royal Caribbean and others have opened doors and eyes to a range of possibilities. Collectively, CBP and our partners are making history….

As early as 2006, we heard the top lobbyist for the airline trade association IATA make the airlines’ pitch on dataveillance to the DHS and foreign governments at an ICAO conference: Airlines don’t want to do governments’ work for free, he said. But we’ll be happy to collect information about travelers, and share it with governments (this said to an audience that included law enforcement agencies from the US DHS to China’s Public Security Bureau)  as long as we get to retain the data and use it for our own purposes.

It’s a win/win arrangement for governments and travel companies, and a lose/lose arrangement for travelers. There’s a malign convergence of interest between governments that want to use automated facial recognition for surveillance and control of travelers, and travel companies that want to use the same infrastructure and database for “facilitation” (business process automation) of travel and personalization of travel prices.

The joint government/industry interest and intent to develop and deploy a shared system of automated facial image tracking and control of travelers is made clear in white papers on government/industry biometric strategy and in the agendas for events at which CBP, TSA, and industry executives get together to discuss their plans.

Next month’s Future Travel Experience Global 2018 conference, for example, includes presentations by the planning and implementation directors for CBP’s “Biometric Exit” program, followed later the same day by a “working session” with CBP, airline, and airport executives on “Implementing advanced passenger processing with automation and biometrics”.

“Questions to be tackled” by CBP and the airline industry, in relation to use of biometrics, include both  “automation” and “personalization”.

(4) US citizens can opt out of having mug shots taken.

According to the latest PIA update from CBP:

At this time, CBP does not require U.S. Citizens to have their photos captured when entering or exiting the country. U.S. Citizens who request not to participate in this biometric collection process may notify a CBP Officer or an airline or airport representative in order to seek an alternative means of verifying their identity and documents.

We’ve heard this claim before, but we’ve also been told that we were required to use automated mug-shot kiosks before we were allowed to enter the US — even as US citizens. We’ve heard from many others who’ve had similar experiences.

It may be that, in response to Congressional questions,  CBP field staff have been given new orders lately to allow travelers to opt out of using the mug-shot kiosks, if travelers know enough to insist.  But many line-minders at ports of entry are still telling travelers that using the kiosks is “required”. And to discourage US citizens from opting out of mug shots, CBP is reorganizing the queues at some ports of entry.

Most US posts of entry have had separate lines for US and foreign citizens. Lines for the Automated Passport Control (APC) mug-shot kiosks have often been longer than the lines for CBP inspectors, and US citizens who skip the kiosks have often gotten through the entire inspection process faster than those who waited for automated processing.

At some airports, CBP has recently replaced separate lines for US and foreign citizens with separate lines for those who use automated biometric kiosks (including APC, Global Entry, and Nexus facial photo and iris scan kiosks) and those who don’t use the kiosks.

Since most foreign visitors aren’t eligible to use the kiosks, US citizens who opt out of mug shots have to wait in the same line as foreign visitors, who are typically processed much more slowly. By assigning fewer inspectors to the non-kiosk line, CBP can impose an arbitrarily large time penalty on US citizens for opting out of using the kiosks.

Crucially, the latest PIA update and other CBP statements treat the ability of US citizens to opt out of collection of facial photos as though it were a matter of DHS administrative discretion. There’s still been no acknowledgement  by CBP or any DHS component that this data collection implicates travelers’ rights, and no publicly-disclosed analysis of the legal  basis (if any) for such demands. We’re still waiting for any response to our Freedom Of Information Act request to CBP for records of any such analysis.

If you’re a US citizen and CBP, TSA, airlines, airport operators, or their contractors want to take your photo, just say no. Only resistance will keep this from becoming the new normal for all travelers at every state of their journey from the moment they arrive at the airport.

17 thoughts on “CBP expands partnership with airlines on facial recognition

  1. Edward,
    Another excellent presentation of what; Humanity has become, with just a few strings on the marionette.

    No matter what the Stakeholders say, technology is far from exact.

    Phrases like:

    “Biometric Exit”, sounds too much like BRExit….Tavistock.
    Travel Authorization,,,,Thank You very much.
    Passenger ID Verification…must be so?

    This is all falling into place with things like the Space Fence……A WorldWide or Planetary SMART GRID.

    On one Hand what can one say?

    On the other Hand Much can be Said and written about.

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  10. I was encouraged to encounter no resistance after requesting to opt-out of the APC biometric kiosks at IAH airport last week after arriving from an international flight. The line minder didn’t say a word and simply pointed me in the oposite direction to those who complete APC entry, which took me from the end of at APC area over to traditional screening. The request added about a 20 minute delay due to waiting in the additional screening line. I was prepared to show the latest PIA in the event the line minder was “accidentially mistaken,” but fortunately that proved to be unnecessary.

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