May 19 2021

A race to the bottom: DHS “Biometric Tech Rally”

Today the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced a competition between hardware and software vendors to demonstrate the facial-recognition systems that are most useful for surveillance and other malign uses: cameras or other sensors and facial and/or other biometric matching algorithms that can identity travelers (or other people in public places) even if they are wearing masks:

[T]he 2021 Biometric Technology Rally will focus on evaluating the ability of systems to reliably collect and/or match images of individuals, including those wearing face masks. The intent is to improve the ability to recognize people without requiring travelers to remove protective equipment….

The 2021 Biometric Technology Rally will be held at the Maryland Test Facility (MdTF) in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, later this fall. Testing will be performed in controlled scenarios relevant to DHS operations….

Providers of face and multi-modal biometric acquisition systems, as well as providers of biometric matching algorithms, are encouraged to participate.

Requiring travelers to remove their masks at checkpoints operated by or on behalf of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and/or other DHS components endangers travelers and makes clear that the U.S. government has put surveillance and tracking of travelers ahead of safety and health.

But the way to completely eliminate the threat to travelers’ health and safety posed by unmasking is to stop trying to identify travelers,  which is based on the “pre-crime” fantasy that identity-based algorithms can read travelers’ minds and predict which of them intend to  commit future aviation-related crimes. Instead, the TSA should confine its searches to those intended to detect genuinely threatening objects: weapons and explosives.

Feb 01 2021

CDC orders air travelers to unmask for government surveillance

Putting government surveillance and control of travelers ahead of what is supposed to be their mission of protecting of the public against infectious diseases, the U.S Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has ordered that, effective today, all air travelers must risk their lives by removing their face masks on demand of Transportation Security Administration (TSA) checkpoint staff or airline ticketing or gate agents.

Until today, as we have noted previously, many state and local health orders issued in response to the COVID-19 pandemic required everyone in public indoor spaces such as airports to wear face masks, without any exception that would have applied at TSA checkpoints. Although we are not aware of any litigation that ensued, air travelers could have asserted their right — and even their  duty — not to remove their face masks, under pain of criminal penalties for violating public health orders.

The CDC order effective today appears to be designed to preempt those state and local health orders, and open the door for the TSA, TSA contractors, and airline staff to endanger the lives of air travelers in the interest of surveillance and control (by the TSA) and “revenue protection” against transfers of nontransferable tickets  (by airlines):

The requirement to wear a mask shall not apply under the following circumstances: … When necessary to temporarily remove the mask to verify one’s identity such as during Transportation Security Administration screening or when asked to do so by the ticket or gate agent or any law enforcement official.

The CDC order aloows — and, in fact, requires — TSA and airline staff and contractors to leave their masks on. Only travelers’ lives are to be endangered.

It remains unclear, of course, whether it is “necessary .. to verify one’s identity” either to the TSA, its contractors, or airline staff, much less whether looking at faces is the way to do so. We think not. But whatever the legality of “ID verification”, the CDC officials responsible for this unmasking order should be ashamed of their betrayal of their medical mission and for promulgating an “insecure flight” requirement.

Dec 21 2020

We say “No” to mug shots at airports and borders

Illustration from CBP website. The claim that facial recogntion “helps to prevent the spread of germs” is especially bogus, since facial recognition requires travelers to remove their face masks wherever it is used.

Today the Identity Project (IDP), Restore the Fourth, Privacy Times, and the National Workrights Institute  filed joint comments with U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) in opposition ot the CBP proposal to require mug shots (and possibly collection of other biometrics) from all non-U.S. citizens at all border crossings and international airports and seaports:

The purported NPRM [Notice of Proposed Rulermaking] was promulgated under purported authority delegated by an official purporting to exercise the duties of the Secretary of Homeland Security. That official was not appointed in accordance with the Vacancies Reform Act and therefore lacks authority to promulgate notices of proposed rules or final rules, or to delegate authority to do so which they do not themselves hold….

The proposed rules and procedures would violate the Privacy Act, and must therefore be revised or withdrawn.

The proposed rules and procedures would violate the Paperwork Reduction Act (PRA), and must therefore be revised or withdrawn.

The impact assessment in the NPRM is incomplete, inaccurate, and grossly underestimates the costs which would be imposed on individual travelers by the proposed rule. The NPRM fails to consider how many (more) individuals would opt out of collection of biometrics, if they were provided with the notices required by the PRA, or the cost to those travelers who are so delayed that they miss their flights. The impact assessment must be revised.

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Nov 30 2020

CBP proposes to require mug shots of all non-US citizen travelers

Last December we called attention to plans  by US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to require mug shots of all travelers entering or leaving the US by air or sea, including US citizens.

Within days, CBP issued a press release falsely accusing us of incorrectly reporting  the official CBP notice of its plans, and saying that it would withdraw its notice the next time the regulatory agenda was published.

So what happened?

Earlier this month, CBP withdrew the notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM)… and issued a new notice of proposed rulemaking the same day that wouldn’t apply to US citizens, but would require all non-US citizens, including permanent US residents (green-card holders) to be photographed whenever they enter or leave the US by any means: air, land, or sea.

(This proposed rule is for collection of biometrics from international travelers at airports, cruise ports, and land borders. There’s a separate pending proposal which we and others have criticized  for collection of biometrics including fingerprints and DNA samples, in advance of travel, from visa applicants, other would-be US visitors, and their US sponsors.)

At airports, the scheme contemplated by CBP would follow the public/private partnership model that CBP and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) have been collaborating on with airlines and airport operating authorities in the USA and abroad:

Generally, when travelers present themselves for entry or exit, they will encounter a camera connected to CBP’s cloud-based TVS facial matching service via a secure, encrypted connection…. The camera may be owned by CBP, the air or vessel carrier, another government agency such as TSA, or an international partner governmental agency….

At the departure gate, each traveler stands for a photo in front of a partner-provided camera. Aided by the authorized airline or airport personnel, the partner-owned camera attempts to capture a usable image and submits the image, sometimes through an authorized integration platform or vendor, to CBP’s cloud-based TVS facial matching service.

The key element in this partnership, CBP makes clear, is that airlines and airports will pay to operate cameras and send photos of passengers to CBP, in exchange for getting uncontrolled use of the CBP facial recognition system for their own business purposes:

The hardware cost in the regulatory period will be borne by the carriers and airports who partner with CBP.  CBP will give carriers and airports access to its facial recognition system and the carriers and airports will choose (and pay for) the hardware that best fits their needs. While this partnership is voluntary, CBP expects that all commercial carriers and major airports will elect to participate within five years.

Unless airlines and airports were given free use of the CBP facial recognition service for their own purposes, they would have no business reason to bear the cost of installing and operating cameras at all departure gates, or to send the photos to CBP. CBP has limited authority to force airlines to surveil their customers, so CBP’s scheme depends on successfully bribing them — all of them — to collaborate by giving them free access to the facial recognition service. This quid pro quo is the key to CBP’s confidence in its plans.

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Oct 09 2020

Port of Seattle continues debate on facial recognition

The debate continues on whether the Port of Seattle should allow or pay for continued or expanded use of facial recognition at Sea-Tac Airport (SEA) and the Seattle cruise port.

Yesterday Port of Seattle staff and a subcommittee of the Port Commission met with an advisory committee on biometrics appointed by the Port Commission.

Jennifer Lee of the ACLU of Washington State delivered a letter co-signed by a coalition of organizations including the Identity Project urging the Port Commission not to authorize, pay for, or participate in any use of facial recognition to identify travelers:

On December 10, 2019, the Commission adopted seven principles to guide its decision-making on if and how biometrics should be used at the Port. These principles are: justified, voluntary, private, equitable, transparent, legal, and ethical.

We do not believe that either the current or the proposed uses of biometrics to identify travelers on Port property can be implemented in a manner consistent with these principles. Port staff state that its recommendations “are not meant to suggest that the Port should implement public-facing biometrics, but rather how to do so in alignment with our guiding principles.”  The only action that would be aligned with those principles would be to ban the use of facial recognition technology to identify members of the public by the Port, as well as by the Port’s tenants and contractors….

1. We urge the Port of Seattle Commission to reject participation in, and funding of, CBP’s facial recognition exit and entry programs….

2. We urge the Port of Seattle Commission to prohibit use of facial recognition technology by private entities.

The Port of Seattle should prohibit business tenants such as airlines from integrating with CBP’s Traveler Verification Service (TVS) — the agency’s “Identity as a Service” biometrics system…. When Port tenants integrate with CBP’s TVS architecture, it is impossible to separate “private” or non-federal surveillance from federal government surveillance of travelers. Travelers may think that they are having their photo taken at a self-service kiosk solely for use by the airport or airline. But in reality, that photo will also be shared with DHS and CBP.

The Port, airlines, and contractors should not obscure the role of DHS and CBP by collecting facial images on their behalf. The Privacy Act, as discussed further below, requires that if an individual’s personal information is to be used by a federal agency, it must be collected by that agency directly from that individual. The best way to provide travelers with clear notice that facial images are being passed on to DHS is to require that any such images be collected by identifiable, uniformed DHS staff, using DHS equipment, at DHS’s expense.

The Port meeting also heard from the office of Rep. Pramila Jayapal, who represents the city of Seattle and environs (although not Sea-Tac Airport) in Congress.  Noting the concerns that led her to introduce a bill in Congress that would “place a prohibition on the domestic use of facial recognition technology by federal entities, which can only be lifted with an act of Congress,” Rep. Jayapal suggested that the Port Commission “consider a moratorium on the use of biometrics technology in all Port activities under its purview.”

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Sep 17 2020

New CBP propaganda on facial recognition and other biometrics

US Customs and Border Ptotection (CBP) has launched an entire new subdomain of its website, biometrics.cbp.gov, devoted to propaganda intended to persuade the traveling public to submit to, and airlines and airport operating authorities to collaborate in, the use of facial recognition and other biometrics to identify and track travelers.

There’s nothing in CBP’s happy-talk sales pitch for facial recognition on this new website that we haven’t seen before. And there are still no answers to any of the questions we’ve asked CBP officials about these practices and the legal basis (not) for them.

Biometrics.cbp.gov features links to the (nonbinding) Privacy Impact Assessments (PIAs) that are supposed to describe how mug shots obtained by CBP or its airport and airline “partners” are to be used. But the new CBP site doesn’t link to the legally binding System Of Records Notices (SORNs) that disclose a much wider range of routine and permitted uses of these images.

If there’s anything noteworthy on this site, it’s under the Resources tab, where you can download  copies of the official CBP signs that are supposedly posted at airports, seaports, and land border crossings, including those for airport arrivals (shown at the top of this blog post), airport departures, cruise ports, and pedestrian lanes at land borders.

Leaving aside questions of the accuracy of the claims on these signs, they provide definitive confirmation that all of these biometric programs are in flagrant violation of Federal law — as we’ve pointed out repeatedly to CBP, but to no avail.

None of these signs contain any Paperwork Reduction Act (PRA) notice or any OMB Control Number. Even if the collection of photos or other biometric information were authorized by law, even if it were voluntary, even if it were limited to non-US persons, and even if none of the images or other data were retained, this collection of information would still have to be approved in advance by OMB, assigned an OMB Control Number confirming the approval, and accompanied by PRA notices including that OMB Control Number.

Some people wonder why we care about OMB approval or PRA notices. OMB approval is often little more than a rubber stamp. It’s not an onerous burden on the agency, and it doesn’t usually involve any meaningful scrutiny of the legal basis claimed by an agency for collecting information from individuals. PRA notices don’t give much information about how the data that’s being collected will be used.  Few people know to look for PRA notices or OMB Control Numbers, how to interpret them, or what they signify.

The significance of CBP’s complete disregard for the PRA — a minimal administrative formality that CBP could easily comply with — is that it is indicative of CBP’s complete disregard for the law in general. It’s not that CBP or its parent agency the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) are lazy. The choice not to seek OMB approval for their actions, or to post PRA notices, is not an accident. It’s emblematic of the extent to which CBP and the DHS assume that they can disregard any of the substantive or procedural rules that apply to all other agencies, and make their own laws through secret diktats. The real problem is not the violation of the PRA, but that CBP and DHS have no greater respect for human rights treaties or the US Constitution than they do for Federal laws like the PRA.

Sep 09 2020

Portland bans facial recognition by city agencies or in places of public accommodation

Today the City Council of Portland, Oregon, voted unanimously to ban the use of facial recognition technology by City agencies or by private entities in places of public accommodation within the City limits, including at the Portland International Airport (PDX), effective immediately.

Many local and national organizations and individuals testified eloquently in favor of these proposals. We don’t need to repeat all of their general arguments.

But a point of particular concern and particular pleasure for us is that the Port of Portland asked the City Council for an exemption from the ban to allow use of facial recognition “for air carrier passenger processing” — and was turned down.

No member of the City Council mentioned the Port’s request for a carve-out for facial recogntion of air travelers during the City Council discussion, and the proposals were adopted without amendment except for making the ban on private use of facial recognition in places of public accommodation effective immediately, as had already been proposed for the ban on use by city agencies. (The amendment to make the private entity ban effective immediately was made verbally during the City Council meeting, so it isn’t reflected in the advance text of the proposal.)

This is an important precedent , as Portland is only the second jurisdiction in the US to consider local rules related to facial recognition at its airport.

Earlier this year, after behind-the-scenes threats by the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to make life difficult for the Port of Seattle if it didn’t collaborate with DHS facial recognition schemes at Sea-Tac International Airport (SEA) and allow airlines and contractors also to do so, the Port of Seattle Commission reneged on the aspirational policy principles it adopted in 2019  and decided to buy and operate common-use facial recognition cameras integrated with DHS and airline databases and operations.

(See our written testimony to the Seattle Port Commission on use of facial recognition at SEA: 1, 2, 3., and articles in our blog here and here.)

The decision by the Port of Seattle was made just before the COVID-19 pandemic drastically reduced traffic at SEA and other airports and delayed the need for the new gates at SEA where the DHS-linked cameras were to be installed. A broad coalition of local and national community and civil liberties organizations has called on the Seattle Port Commission to use the opportunity provided by this delay to reconsider its decision on facial recognition.

Portland did significantly better than Seattle in working to distance itself from and isolate the DHS — not surprisingly in light of the object lesson the DHS has provided in Portland recently with respect to DHS trustworthiness (not), self-restraint (not), commitment to the rule of law (not), and respect for civil and human rights (not). Portlanders don’t trust the DHS to behave any better at PDX Airport than it’s been behaving on the streets of Portland.

PDX airport is located within the City of Portland but operated by the Port of Portland, a special-purpose agency of the state of Oregon governed by a board appointed by the Governor of Oregon. The City of Portland can’t prevent use of facial recognition by the DHS or the Port of Portland, but can regulate or prohibit its use by private entities, including airlines, within the city limits, including at the airport.

The Port of Portland has the authority to enter into contracts, borrow and spend money, manage its employees, and enact rules for activities at PDX Airport. But in addition to the requirements of due process and other Constitutional rights, and the obligations on the airport as a publicly owned and operated place of public accommodations and common-carrier facility, the legislative authority of the Port is limited to the issuance of rules consistent with city ordinances. That appears to mean that the Port may not prohibit that which the city has duly prohibited. (If readers have more expertise on this jurisdictional issue, feel free to leave a comment or drop us a line.)

The Federal government could preempt the Portland ordinances if it enacted valid laws or promulgated valid regulations mandating use of facial recognition by Federally-regulated airlines and/or airports. But no law mandates use of facial recognition for US citizens, even when traveling internatoinally, or for passengers on domestic flights

The DHS has refrained from promulgating any such regulations, preferring to operate outside the law than to establish any legal framework for its use of facial recognition or subject it claim of authority to notice-and-comment rulemaking or judicial review. A petition for rulemaking on use of biometrics for traveler identification submitted to the DHS by the Portland-based World Privacy Forum has been ignored by the DHS for almost two years.

While the DHS has engaged in heavy-handed behind-the-scenes lobbying and threats to “persuade” airlines and airport operating agencies to become its “partners” in biometric surveillance and control of air travelers, as it did in Seattle, the DHS has continued to maintain — correctly — that this “cooperation” is entirely voluntary. In declining to participate, and by exercising its jurisdiction to prohibit airlines or other contractors form doing so within the city limits, the City of Portland is doing only what the DHS has consistently said that local jurisdictions have the authority to do, if they so choose.

The July 14, 2020, letter from the Port of Portland to the Portland City Council requesting exemption from the facial recognition ban made numerous false factual claims and specious arguments. Since these bogus arguments are likely to be raised again in other cites despite having failed to persuade any of the members of the Portland City Council, it’s worth noting and debunking them:

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Sep 03 2020

GAO report on DHS use of facial recognition on travelers

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has released a new report requested by Congressional oversight committee chairs describing and assessing the ways that US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) use facial recognition to identity and track international (CBP) and domestic (TSA) travelers.

Here’s how the GAO says it works  (click flowchart for larger version): The GAO report doesn’t address several of the most significant issues with DHS use of facial recognition to identify travelers, including:

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Sep 01 2020

TSA tries out another (illegal) biometric “ID verification” system

Today the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) announced that it has launched a “pilot” at Washington National Airport (DCA) of yet another scheme for biometric identification and tracking of domestic air travelers.

[Screen capture from TSA video]

The new “touchless ID verification” stations at DCA include a webcam (at top center of photo above) a magnetic-stripe reader (lower left) for drivers licenses and other ID cards, and a photographic scanner for passports (lower right).

Travelers who volunteer to use the new system are directed to insert their drivers license, ID card, or passport into the appropriate reader, stand on a marked spot in front of the webcam, and remove their face mask, so that the image from the ID (or, more likely, from some back-end image database linked to the ID, although that hasn’t been disclosed) and the image from the webcam can be compared by some undisclosed algorithm.

[Traveler being directed by TSA staff to remove her face mask for digital mug shot.]

As we’ve noted previously, it appears to us that (1) the TSA has no general authority to require travelers to show their faces or remove face masks, and (2) in many jurisdictions, orders issued by state or local health authorities currently require all people in public places such as airports to wear masks.

The TSA describes this system as “touchless”. But while TSA staff don’t have to touch travelers’ IDs, each traveler has to touch the same ID card or passport scanner. Then, immediately after touching the scanner, they have to touch their face again to put their mask back on.

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Jun 26 2020

Federal bills would restrict airport facial recognition

A bill introduced yesterday in both houses of Congress would, at least initially, prohibit all or most current and planned use of facial recognition or other biometric identification at US airports and borders by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and US Customs and Border Protection (CBP).

The Facial Recognition and Biometric Technology Moratorium Act of 2020 was introduced by Sen. Edward Markey (D-MA) as S. 4084 and by Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) as H.R. 7356. The new bill has already been endorsed by a broad coalition of civil liberties organizations. Sen. Markey has been a leading Congressional critic of facial recognition at airports.

This Federal proposal, if enacted as introduced, would fill a significant gap in ongoing efforts to rein in facial recognition through state laws and local ordinances.

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