ACLU Sues Over U.S. Airport Facial-Recognition Technology

biometrics data breach

Civil-liberties group wants more transparency about who the government is partnering with and how they are using the information gathered in biometric checks.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has filed suit the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) over its use of facial recognition technology in airports, decrying the government’s “extraordinarily dangerous path” to normalize facial surveillance as well as its secrecy in making specific details of the plan public.

The ACLU’s lawsuit, filed in a U.S. District Court in New York, is seeking more transparency from U.S. Customs and Border Protection (UCBP) and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) about how it’s using information collected by the scanning technology as well as how it’s working with partner organizations in terms of the effort.

“Our lawsuit seeks to make public the government’s contracts with airlines, airports, and other entities pertaining to the use of face recognition at the airport and the border; policies and procedures concerning the acquisition, processing, and retention of our biometric information; and analyses of the effectiveness of facial recognition technology,” Ashley Gorski, a state attorney for the ACLU, wrote in a blog post about the lawsuit published online Thursday.
The ACLU also wants the government to provide more clarity on how American citizens can opt out of using the facial surveillance system when passing through an airport that uses it, which the organization said is not always the case nor are people aware of how they can enact this option.

Facial recognition checks have been implemented at various airports through the “Biometric Exit” program, first introduced by UBCP in 2015 and later branded the Traveler Verification Service (TVS). The service involves photographing travelers during entry or exit from the United States and using facial recognition technology to compare those photographs with images from government records, according to the ACLU.

Currently, 22 airports are using the TVS program, which as of June 2019 had scanned the faces of more than 20 million travelers entering and exiting the country, the civil-liberties union said. Several major airlines, including Delta, JetBlue and United Airlines, have already partnered with CBP to build this surveillance infrastructure, while more than 20 other airlines and airports have committed to using CBP’s face-matching technology.

Meanwhile, the TSA has also partnered with CBP on face surveillance initiatives, with plans to further expand face surveillance to domestic travelers, according to the ACLU.

In December, DHS said it would expand its use of facial recognition-based border checks to all travelers to and from the U.S.–even if they are U.S. citizens. However, officials rolled back that plan about a week late after meeting with privacy advocates and experts like the ACLU, who raised numerous concerns about its effect on privacy and civil liberties.

In its filing, the ACLU said DHS activity when it comes to TVS has shown a pattern of trying to normalize facial surveillance, allowing them to practice “undetectable, persistent government surveillance on a massive scale.”

“As this technology becomes increasingly widespread, it threatens to grant the government an unprecedented power to track individuals’ movements and associations, posing grave risks to privacy and civil liberties,” the ACLU said in its filing.

The activity is especially troubling from organizations that historically have a track record of misusing personally identifiable information for their own purposes and invading the privacy and liberties of individual citizens, Gorski said.

“When such a technology is placed in the hands of agencies like CBP and the TSA — which have been caught tracking and spying on journalists, subjecting innocent travelers to excessive and humiliating searches, and targeting and interrogating individuals because of their national origin, religious beliefs, or political views — we should all be concerned,” she wrote.

The government also has been hesitant to divulge information to the ACLU when the organization has officially requested through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) details on how agents are tracking and monitoring people’s faces, providing even “more reason for alarm,” she added.

The DHS did not immediately respond to request for comment nor has commented publicly on the lawsuit.

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