WASHINGTON -- Homeland Security officials continue to step back from their published plan to require use of facial recognition technology on American citizens at U.S. airports when they arrive from or depart to international destinations.
The Trump administration's proposed mandatory use of the technology was included in the so-called unified agenda, published in late November, which sets out the regulatory changes agencies intend to pursue in coming months. The proposal sought to expand mandatory facial recognition at U.S. airports "to provide that all travelers, including U.S. citizens, may be required to be photographed upon entry and/or departure."
U.S. Customs and Border Protection has been testing facial recognition technology in passenger lanes at four ports of entry along the southern U.S. border, and at around 20 international airports around the country in partnership with private airlines. Currently, U.S. citizens can opt out of the facial scan, but the proposed rule appeared to have eliminated that option.
On Monday, acting CBP Commissioner Mark Morgan clarified the agency's walk-back.
"When it first happened, logistically, it was going be very, very difficult to separate out U.S. citizens with non-U.S. citizens. That's why it was originally included," Morgan told reporters, explaining the agency's proposed rule to expand the technology to all passengers. "My understanding is there was no intent to mandate U.S. citizens. It is voluntary -- it has been -- and currently there are no plans to change that."
The CBP's move to expand the use of facial recognition came despite significant concerns about the technology already raised by lawmakers of both parties, civil rights groups and technology companies, all of whom have called for a federal law governing the use of the technology.
A CBP official told CQ Roll Call that the regulation first appeared on the unified agenda in 2018 and reflected "earlier discussions," but by summer 2019, after many discussions with privacy groups and members of Congress, the agency had decided to keep the scans voluntary.
Privacy advocates continue to be skeptical of the agency's intentions despite its latest announcement. CBP intends to have the planned regulatory action regarding U.S. citizens removed from the unified agenda next time it is published in the spring of 2020, a CBP official told CQ Roll Call.
As it is currently implemented in airports, passengers pause to have their photos captured, which are then compared with ones in the network of databases CBP has access to. U.S. citizens can inform a CBP officer if they want to opt out. Even if U.S. citizens don't opt out, their images are deleted within 12 hours anyway, a CBP official told CQ Roll Call.
CBP says it has interdicted nearly 200 "imposters" through this technology since September 2018. (In fiscal 2018, CBP officers processed more than 413 million travelers at air, land and sea ports of entry.)