No justification, no rationale—and questionable value—the Georgetown Law Center on Privacy and Technology has delivered a report filled with criticism of Biometric Exit, the fledgling U.S. biometric authentication system that relies on facial recognition technology to better identify travelers. Though supporters say the system could reduce terrorism and even make international flying more efficient, the report raises questions about the need and legality of Biometric Exit systems.
DHS’ face recognition systems erroneously reject as many as 1 in 25 travelers using valid credentials
The report, entitled “Not Ready for Takeoff,” says that cost of the Biometric Exit system could reach $1 billion. The “airport face scans are designed to verify the identities of travelers as they leave the country and stop impostors traveling under someone else’s identity,” the report notes. So far, authorities have deployed the facial recognition technology in nine U.S airports, with the camera and software able to compare travelers’ faces with a Department of Homeland Security biometric database.
The technology flags “as many as 1 in 25 travelers for further scrutiny,” the Georgetown report says. “If DHS’ current plans are executed, every traveler flying overseas, American and foreign national alike, will soon be subject to a face recognition scan as part of this Biometric Exit program.”
Specific criticism of Biometric Exit
Yet the massive size and scope of the biometric authentication program does not protect it from major real and potential flaws, the critics in the report say. Among the main points of criticism of Biometric Exit are:
- Though the facial recognition program could cost up to $1 billion, according to U.S. Congressional figures, the justification, rationale and value for the program remains fuzzy, according to the Georgetown critics. “Congress never provided a rationale for” the program, the report says. “For its part, DHS says that airport face scans are designed to verify the identities of travelers as they leave the country and stop impostors traveling under someone else’s identity. But DHS itself has repeatedly questioned ‘the additional value biometric air exit would provide’ compared with the status quo and the ‘overall value and cost of a biometric air exit capability,’ even as it has worked to build it.”
- The biometric exit program stands on what the report calls “shaky legal ground.” That’s because while Congress “has repeatedly ordered the collection of biometrics from foreign nationals at the border, [it] has never clearly authorized the border collection of biometrics from American citizens using face recognition technology.” That’s not all. “DHS also is failing to comply with a federal law requiring it to conduct a rulemaking process to implement the airport face scanning program—a process that DHS has not even started,” the report says.
- The facial recognition technology used by the Biometric Exit program is prone to mistakes. “According to DHS’ own data, DHS’ face recognition systems erroneously reject as many as 1 in 25 travelers using valid credentials,” the report says. “At this high rate, DHS’ error-prone face scanning system could cause 1,632 passengers to be wrongfully delayed or denied boarding every day at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport alone.”
Among the remedies included in the report is a call for airlines to avoid partnering “with DHS in the future to conduct biometric screening of their passengers without first ensuring that DHS” takes steps to alleviate the concerns outlined in the report.