House Democrats question DHS over using facial recognition tech on US citizens

House Democrats question DHS over using facial recognition tech on US citizens
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Over 20 House Democrats in a letter on Friday pressed the Department of Homeland Security over Border Patrol's use of facial recognition technology on U.S. citizens in airports, arguing the rapidly expanding program has not been enabled by any congressional mandate.

Customs and Border Protection (CBP), which has been rolling out the face-scanning program in a growing number of airports across the U.S., has argued that it is operating under a congressional mandate and executive order from the president. But those orders ask CBP to roll out a biometrics program for "foreign nationals," not U.S. citizens, the lawmakers say.

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"We write to express concerns about reports that the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is using facial recognition technology to scan American citizens under the Biometric Exit Program," the group of progressive lawmakers, who sit on multiple committees, wrote, referring to CBP's facial recognition tech program.  

"This is an unprecedented and unauthorized expansion of the agency’s authority," they wrote. "As such, we urge the agency to allow for public input and establish privacy safeguards." 

A CBP spokeswoman confirmed to The Hill that it has received the letter. 

The group of Democrats behind the letter are led by Reps. Susan WildSusan WildTo boost economy and midterm outlook, Democrats must pass clean energy bill The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Altria - Marking the Jan. 6 'chaos and carnage' Overnight Defense & National Security — Nation marks 1 year since Capitol riot MORE (D-Pa.), Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) and Yvette ClarkeYvette Diane ClarkeOvernight Energy & Environment — New York Democrats go after 'peaker' plants Three House Democrats ask watchdog to probe 'peaker' power plant pollution Officials point to Apache vulnerability in urging passage of cyber incident reporting bill MORE (D-N.Y.). The group includes progressives such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezMissouri House Democrat becomes latest to test positive for COVID-19 Louisiana Rep. Troy Carter announces positive COVID-19 test Joining Pelosi, Hoyer says lawmakers should be free to trade stocks MORE (D-N.Y.), Rashida TlaibRashida Harbi TlaibHouse Democrats inquire about possible census undercount in Detroit, other communities Michigan redistricting spat exposes competing interests in Democratic coalition Tlaib announces run in new Detroit district with Lawrence retiring MORE (D-Mich.) and Ilhan OmarIlhan OmarSenate needs to confirm Deborah Lipstadt as antisemitism envoy — Now Overnight Defense & National Security — DOD watchdog to review extremism screening Omar calls for closure of Guantánamo Bay prison after 20 years of 'lawlessness and cruelty' MORE (D-Minn.). 

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle in recent weeks have dramatically intensified their scrutiny of facial recognition technology, particularly by CBP and the FBI, saying the technology poses privacy and civil rights issues that have not been resolved. At a pair of House Oversight and Reform Committee hearings over the past month, Republicans and Democrats raised concerns that the government has implemented programs around facial recognition tech without any congressional regulation or oversight. 

House Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah CummingsElijah Eugene CummingsThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by National Industries for the Blind - Manchin says no; White House fires back House Democrats find drug companies 'unjustified' in price hikes Your must-read holiday book list from members of Congress MORE (D-Md.) said there will be a third hearing on the issue, after which the lawmakers will be compiling potential legislative solutions.

The Democrats in the letter asked acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan to respond to four questions about CBP's facial scanning program. They questioned which laws give CBP the authority to use the technology on American citizens, what efforts CBP has made to provide passengers with the ability to opt out ahead of time, and for more information on the nature of the contracts between CBP, airports and airlines. 

CBP's program hit the headlines again after the agency last week confirmed that photos of U.S travelers and license plate images were recently stolen from a database maintained by CBP. 

Lawmakers have been demanding answers about the breach, including how the agency is protecting photos of U.S. citizens in its expansive photo database.

DHS this year said it plans to use facial recognition technology on nearly all departing air passengers within the next four years as part of its "Biometric Entry/Exit" program, which scans the faces of people coming into and out of the U.S. CBP has said the program is aimed at identifying people flouting laws about who can come into the country, including those overstaying their visas, and airlines have argued that it makes traveling more efficient. 

CBP has been implementing its “biometric exit” program for years, expanding to 15 major airports with plans to reach five more.

A CBP spokesperson in a statement to The Hill argued that CBP's program is "solving a security challenge while adding a convenience for travelers." 

The spokesperson said CBP has processed 19 million travelers using facial recognition technology with a match rate of 97 percent since the program began. Of those millions, CBP said, it has intercepted six "imposters" who were denied admission to the United States at airports.

"CBP is committed to protecting the privacy of all travelers and has issued several Privacy Impact Assessments related to Entry/Exit, employed strong technical security safeguards, and has limited the amount of personally identifiable information used in the transaction," the spokesperson said.

Currently, CBP says passengers are welcome to decline to participate in the program. But according to the airlines partnering with the agency, very few passengers do so.

Updated: 3:18 p.m.