A year ago we explained how what at first seemed like creeping tip-toe incrementalism toward the use of biometric ID for travel is quickly becoming a warp-speed reality.
At that time DHS and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) announced that they would integrate government databases with a private company to speed up biometric processing in an experimental test program initially rolled out only at a couple of select airports. Since that time the program has exploded to include a dozen or more international airports.
It's essentially what China has already implemented on a large, Orwellian scale, and involves plans for possible mandatory face scans for all travelers to foreign destinations. And US officials are now touting the technology's recent use at Washington Dulles International Airport to catch an alleged imposter traveling on a fake passport.
According to the government and contract industry defense tech news site NextGov:
CBP officials at Washington Dulles International Airport Wednesday said the newly implemented facial biometric program identified a 26-year-old Congolese man attempting to enter the U.S. using a French passport.
The man, traveling from Sao Paulo, Brazil on Tuesday, went through the new international entry system at Dulles Airport, which brings travelers directly to a CBP officer for document inspection. While the documents are being scanned, a biometric camera analyzes the passenger’s face and compares it against records associated with the passport or other travel documents.
With this first successful case of flagging fake credentials based on the technology, the American public will likely soon be flooded with more "success stories" as federal authorities prepare the American public for more stringent security measures as citizens pass through airport checkpoints.
In this particular case, the facial recognition technology was only in its third day of use.
The NextGov report describes further that "In this instance, the system flagged the man as a mismatch for the passport on record and he was removed for additional screening. At that time, officers said he became visibly nervous and an authentic ID card showing he was a citizen of the Republic of Congo was found in his shoe."
Not missing an opportunity to soften American citizens' legitimate concern for privacy in what appears a Minority Report dystopian scenario where people's biometric data could be stored by the feds for all time (DHS officials and program-related documents have previously "promised" this won't happen, and hopes that people will simply take them at their word), DHS officials are hailing this as an "important step forward" in protecting Americans from terrorism and crime.
“Facial recognition technology is an important step forward for CBP in protecting the United States from all types of threats,” says Casey Durst, director of CBP's Baltimore Field Office, in a public statement after the Dulles incident. “Terrorists and criminals continually look for creative methods to enter the U.S. including using stolen genuine documents. The new facial recognition technology virtually eliminates the ability for someone to use a genuine document that was issued to someone else.”
Noting that 14 more airports have integrated biometric procedures this summer alone, the NextGov report notes this not-too-comforting fact: "The programs are also extending beyond customs to the entire air travel system. A pilot program at JFK International Airport in New York was recently expanded to integrate the system with Transportation Security Administration checkpoints."
Meanwhile one notable outspoken critic of the program, Harrison Rudolph, who runs the Center on Privacy and Technology at Georgetown University Law School says the technology may actually at times falsely identify people, and that the potential permanent government database storage is a legitimate looming concern.
The privacy researcher was cited by NPR last Spring: "DHS doesn't seem to know whether its system will falsely reject folks," that is, be unable to match the face scan with photos it has in the system, at higher rates because of their race or gender. "That's a serious problem," he says.
Rudolph said further, "DHS hasn't issued a single rule under this program to protect Americans' privacy," and added, "So what DHS decides to do with this information tomorrow, I'm not sure. And without rules there may be few protections for Americans' privacy."
With such issues left completely unsettled, and with the government claiming it would never, never abuse such a technology... the consistent refrain in reports over the last year has been its fast coming to an airport near you.