CBP identifies over 100 'imposters' out of 19 million with face scans at airports, border

CBP identifies over 100 'imposters' out of 19 million with face scans at airports, border
© iStock, The Hill illustration

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) said Friday it has 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.

A CBP spokesperson told The Hill the agency has "successfully intercepted six imposters" at airports and "identified 135 imposters" at pedestrian border crossings in the past several years since it began implementing facial recognition scanning. The technology has been more successful at land borders than airports so far.

"With facial comparison biometrics, CBP is changing solving a security challenge while adding a convenience for travelers," the spokesperson said.

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One of the top purposes of the facial recognition technology program, dubbed "biometric entry/exit," is to identify people who are in the U.S. illegally, such as those who have overstayed their visa.

The agency previously said it has identified more than 7,000 people overstaying their visa through the program so far.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in a statement called the numbers shared by CBP “cherry-picked.” 

“These cherry-picked numbers fail to tell the whole story,” ACLU senior legislative counsel Neema Singh Guliani said in a statement to The Hill. “They don't reveal how many people are wrongly stopped, detained, or harassed as a result of this technology.” 

“However, even these piecemeal numbers call into question whether the use of face recognition on millions of travelers in this context has efficacy — particularly when balanced against the enormous cost to taxpayers, signifiant privacy risks, and availability of other, less invasive ways to check travelers’ IDs,” she added.

CBP has already rolled out the face-scanning program at 17 airports in the U.S. and plans to continue expanding. The Department of Homeland Security earlier this year said it plans to use facial recognition technology on nearly all departing air passengers within the next four years as part of the program, which scans the faces of people coming into and out of the U.S.

CBP began implementing the program in 2017, photographing passengers at their airport gates before they board their flights. By 2018, the agency had unveiled the program at 15 U.S. airports. 

The statement from CBP came in response to a letter from 23 House Democrats on Friday, which raised concerns that CBP has been pursuing the program without adequate privacy and legal guidelines.

"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 wrote. "We urge the agency to allow for public input and establish privacy safeguards." 

A Homeland Security Committee spokesperson told The Hill that the panel met with privacy activists and industry representatives this week for a closed-door briefing about CBP's use of facial recognition technology. The committee is planning to have a similar meeting this week, which is expected to inform a hearing on the topic next month. 

"Individuals seeking to travel internationally are subject to the laws and rules enforced by CBP and are subject to inspection," the CBP spokesperson said. "However, if a U.S. Citizen, or otherwise exempt alien, requests not to participate in the biometric entry or exit process, he or she may request to be processed using alternate procedures, such as by presenting travel credentials to an available CBP Officer or authorized airline personnel." 

Airlines have reported that few passengers opt out of facial scanning. 

CBP has also implemented facial recognition scanning for pedestrian travels at the San Luis Port of Entry at the U.S.-Mexico border in Arizona.

Cameras at that location take photographs of pedestrians entering the U.S. and compare the images with their travel documents. The agency has previously announced that it has identified "imposters" from countries including Ghana. 

The "biometric entry/exit" program in airports cross-references the images of departing passengers with a "gallery" of images photos from visa and passport applications. The matching service allows CBP to create a record of the passenger's departure, which they can then use to figure out if the individual has overstayed their visa or if they are in the country legally otherwise. 

The program has incurred enormous pushback from civil liberties and civil rights activists, who have raised concerns that the technology is not ready for wide-scale implementation and could invade the privacy rights of Americans. 

Updated: 6:45 p.m.