Officials with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) defended the government’s use of facial recognition technology before a skeptical House panel on Wednesday, downplaying privacy and accuracy concerns as overblown.
Representatives with Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) sought to assure lawmakers there’s no need to limit the agency’s expanding facial recognition tech programs in airports and border areas.
“This is not a surveillance program,” John Wagner, the deputy executive assistant commissioner of CBP’s office of field operations, told the House Homeland Security Committee during a hearing on Wednesday morning.
Wagner repeated the line multiple times, insisting during a later exchange with Rep. Al GreenAlexander (Al) N. GreenLobbying world Ilhan Omar to Biden: 'Deliver on your promise to cancel student debt' Deportations of Haitians spark concerns over environmental refugees MORE (D-Texas) that CBP’s face-scanning project — dubbed “Biometric Entry/Exit” — is “absolutely not a surveillance program” when Green expressed concerns over Americans being watched even if they are not suspected of any wrongdoing.
But the hearing also exposed how lawmakers are struggling with the issue, showing daylight between Republicans and Democrats over whether the federal government should maintain vast and growing facial recognition capabilities. Some Democratic members of the committee said they feel CBP is surpassing its authority, while Republicans said they want DHS to have access to the national security tools it asks for.
“Effective facial recognition technologies can improve law enforcement,” Rep. Mike RogersMichael (Mike) Dennis RogersWashington's playing with a weak hand in the Ukraine crisis House GOP members introduce legislation targeting Russia over Ukraine Corporations seek to rebuild bridges with GOP objectors ahead of midterms MORE (R-Ala.), the ranking member on the House Homeland Security Committee, said during his opening remarks.
“Biometric technologies have the potential to improve security, facilitate travel and better enforce our immigration laws,” Rogers added, noting that while various biometric tools pose “unique privacy considerations,” they also have “clear security benefits.”
At a series of House Oversight and Reform Committee hearings over the past few months, lawmakers on opposite sides of the political spectrum have come together over worries that ubiquitous facial recognition technology could violate privacy rights and exacerbate racial discrimination when used by the government.
But the Wednesday hearing by a separate committee showed Congress will likely struggle to come up with a tough law that significantly limits the government’s use of the technology.
At one point, Rep. Michael McCaulMichael Thomas McCaulHouse Republicans bash Democrats' China competition bill Congress races to strike Russia sanctions deal as tensions mount New Mexico Democrat tests positive for COVID-19 breakthrough case MORE (R-Texas) asked CBP to list some of the benefits of its biometrics program.
“It’s always a balance in this committee when we deal with security issues, we deal with privacy and civil liberties, we always have to balance these as Americans,” McCaul said. “But I wouldn’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater.”
Lawmakers are under pressure to get ahead of the expanding technology.
On the morning of the hearing, a coalition of 35 organizations led by top privacy group the Electronic Privacy Information Center pressed Congress to completely halt the use of face recognition technology on the public.
“The use of face recognition technology by DHS poses serious risks to privacy and civil liberties, threatens immigrants, broadly impacts American citizens, and has been implemented without proper safeguards in place or explicit Congressional approval,” the organizations wrote in a letter to the top members of the House Homeland Security Committee.
“Congress should not permit the continued use of face recognition in the United States, absent safeguards to prevent such abuses,” the groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Immigration Law Center, added.
But multiple statements from Republicans on the committee commending the security benefits of facial recognition seemed to signal that at the moment there is less bipartisan momentum for a moratorium or ban.
Earlier this week, Rep. Jim JordanJames (Jim) Daniel JordanReps ask Capitol Police Board for information on 'insider threat awareness program' Are the legal walls closing in on Donald Trump? Biden: A good coach knows when to change up the team MORE (R-Ohio), the ranking member on the Oversight Committee, said he is working with Democratic colleagues to work up some bipartisan guardrails, raising the possibility of either a ban or a “pause” on the government’s facial recognition tech use.
Sources on the committee have said in recent weeks that there is bipartisan movement, but the proposals could face pushback from Republicans and even Democrats.
Wagner, from CBP, on Wednesday drilled down on the privacy guardrails the agency has put in place around its program, as well as the convenience it offers for both law enforcement and airport passengers.
He insisted the agency is merely “automating” the process by which human agents currently check travelers’ passports.
“CBP developed a service that automates the manual facial recognition process that goes on today when a traveler presents a passport to establish their identity,” Wagner said.
CBP’s biometric program scans the faces of travelers entering and exiting the country for the purposes of identifying them. The agency has said it is an effort to crack down on people overstaying their visas or whose identities do not match their documentation.
The agency said last month that it has so far processed more than 19 million travelers using facial recognition technology in airports and at borders, but has only identified a little more than 100 “imposters” whose identities do not match their ID documents — one of the top stated purposes of the program. The agency has successfully intercepted six “imposters” at airports and 135 at pedestrian border crossings.
The program has already been rolled out at 17 airports in the U.S., and the agency plans to continue to expand. DHS earlier this year said it plans to use facial recognition technology on nearly all departing air passengers within the next four years.
Wagner said CBP only retains U.S. citizens’ photos for 12 hours after capturing them at the airport. Those photos are compared to an extensive CBP database that includes visa, passport and other government photos in order to verify the traveler’s identity.
TSA is piloting its own face-scanning programs to verify the identities of passengers at U.S. airports, but it is still exploring how it wants to expand.
Austin Gould, an assistant administrator at TSA, told the panel that the agency is working to identify “new processes and technologies to improve performance while protecting passengers’ privacy.”
Just one day before the hearing, leading digital rights group Fight for the Future launched an online campaign to push for an all-out federal ban on facial recognition technology, raising sharp concerns over studies that have shown it is less accurate on women and people of color and can be incredibly invasive.
“It is not fair to expect certain people in our society to shoulder a disproportionate burden of the technology’s shortcomings,” House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie ThompsonBennie Gordon ThompsonJan. 6 panel's subpoena furthers complications for Rudy Giuliani, DOJ Alex Jones says he invoked Fifth Amendment 'almost 100 times' before Jan. 6 panel Democrats ask for information on specialized Border Patrol teams MORE (D-Miss.) said.