Warning: TSA Facial Recognition Plan Likely to Become Part of Growing Biometric Surveillance System

WASHINGTON (Dec. 6, 2017) – The federal government plans to use a TSA program advertised as a way to avoid lines at airport security checkpoints to harvest photos and other biometric information that will ultimately end up in multiple federal databases.

The TSA touts its PreCheck program as a way to avoid the hassle of security screening. Members of the program do not have to remove shoes, laptops, liquids, belts and light jackets. But according to a report by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), the Department of Homeland Security has developed this program with a broader purpose in mind. PreCheck will facilitate the collection of face images and iris scans on a nationwide scale. Once that happesns, this biometric data will almost certainly be widely shared with other federal agencies and even private corporations.

“DHS’s programs will become a massive violation of privacy that could serve as a gateway to the collection of biometric data to identify and track every traveler at every airport and border crossing in the country.”

The TSA currently collects fingerprints during the PreCheck application process. Over the summer, the agency ran a pilot program at the Atlanta Airport using fingerprints to verify passengers’ identities. According to the EFF, the TSA wants to roll out the program to airports across the country and expand it to include facial recognition, iris scans, and other biometric data.

This TSA will almost certainly share this information with other federal agencies, including the FBI.

In 2014, the FBI rolled out a nationwide facial recognition program. According to information obtained by Georgetown Law last year, the Next Generation Identification Interstate Photo System (NGI-IPS), already contains some 25 million state and federal criminal photos, mostly mugshots shared by state and local law enforcement agencies. Photos remain in the system even if a court never convicts the individual of a crime. It remains unclear what other types of photos end up in NGI-IPS, but it seems almost certain TSA pre-check photos will end up in that database.

According to the EFF, “private partners” will also have access to biometric information gathered by the TSA.

“For example, TSA’s PreCheck program has already expanded outside the airport context. The vendor for PreCheck, a company called Idemia (formerly MorphoTrust), now offers expedited entry for PreCheck-approved travelers at concerts and stadiums across the country. Idemia says it will equip stadiums with biometric-based technology, not just for security, but also “to assist in fan experience.” Adding face recognition would allow Idemia to track fans as they move throughout the stadium, just as another company, NEC, is already doing at a professional soccer stadium in Medellin, Columbia and at an LPGA championship event in California earlier this year.”

These biometric systems create the potential for the federal government to track people all over the United States for virtually any reason.

Customs and Border Protection began rolling out facial recognition last year. The agency demonstrates how these programs expand over time.

“In pilot programs in Georgia and Arizona last year, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) used face recognition to capture pictures of travelers boarding a flight out of the country and walking across a U.S. land border and compared those pictures to previously recorded photos from passports, visas, and ‘other DHS encounters.’  In the Privacy Impact Assessments (PIAs) for those pilot programs, CBP said that, although it would collect face recognition images of all travelers, it would delete any data associated with U.S. citizens. But what began as DHS’s biometric travel screening of foreign citizens morphed, without congressional authorization, into screening of U.S. citizens, too. Now the agency plans to roll out the program to other border crossings, and it says it will retain photos of U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents for two weeks and information about their travel for 15 years. It retains data on ‘non-immigrant aliens’ for 75 years.”

The federal government is in the process of creating an integrated biometric database that will ultimately have the capability to track people virtually anywhere they go. State and local law enforcement agencies also feed into this system. According to the Georgetown Law Perpetual Lineup report, the Department of Defense, the Drug Enforcement Administration, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Internal Revenue Service, the Social Security Administration, the U.S. Air Force Office of Special Investigations and the U.S. Marshals Service have all had access to one or more state or local facial recognition systems.

Perpetuallineup,org describes the shocking breadth of FBI facial search capabilities.

Over 185 million of these photos are drawn from 12 states that let the FBI to search their driver’s license and other ID photos; another 50 million are from four additional states that let the FBI to search both driver’s license photos and mug shots. While we do not know the total number of individuals that those photos implicate, there are close to 64 million licensed drivers in those 16 states. In 2015, the FBI launched a pilot program to search the passport database. It remains unclear if the system can access the entire 125 million passport database or just a subset.

In a May 2016 report, the Government Accountability Office reported that the FBI was negotiating with 18 additional states and the District of Columbia to access their driver’s license photos. In August, the GAO re-released the report, deleting all references to the 18 states and stating that there were “no negotiations underway.” The FBI now suggests that FBI agents had only conducted outreach to those states to explore the possibility of their joining the FACE Services network.

If you value your privacy, you should avoid submitting any kind of biometric data to federal agencies if at all possible – including the TSA.

State and local action can also help limit the scope of these federal biometric databases. They can limit the information they collect and prohibit sharing that information with federal agencies. The feds depend on state and local cooperation, particularly from law enforcement. Prohibiting help would hamper federal action.

 

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