Biometric scans at airports across the country may not be legal, report claims

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Supparsorn Wantarnagon / 123RF

Going through security at our nation’s airports is always one of the lowlights of traveling, but now, it may not just be the inconvenience of the process that’s frustrating travelers — it could be the unlawfulness as well. A new report from Georgetown Law’s Center on Privacy and Technology calls into question the Department of Homeland Security’s new biometric exit pilot program.

Currently live in nine airports across the U.S., the program leverages facial recognition technology to ID passengers taking off on international travel. The point of the program, the DHS claims, is to prevent flyers from attempting to use others’ travel documents, like passports and visas. But according to Georgetown Law, it might not be totally legal.

The main issue at hand, the report notes, is that Congress has not approved DHS to scan American citizens’ faces. While Georgetown notes that Congress “has repeatedly ordered the collection of biometrics from foreign nationals at the border,” the lawmaking body has “never clearly authorized the border collection of biometrics from American citizens using face recognition technology.” As such, DHS does not actually have the explicit permission of Congress to collect the personal data of travelers (but obviously, it is doing so anyway).

Moreover, while a biometric screening system has been brought up in Congress, neither the legislative branch nor DHS “has ever justified the need for the program,” Georgetown Law noted. While DHS has claimed that airport scans can verify traveler identities, the Department has itself called into question “the additional value biometric air exit would provide,” as well as the “overall value and cost of a biometric air exit capability.”

Indeed, it doesn’t seem as though biometric scanning is in fact all that effective. DHS’ data suggests that one out of 25 travelers are mistakenly rejected — that is to say that 4 percent of folks using valid credentials are said to be impostors. This, Georgetown Law suggests, could result in more than 1,600 passengers to be delayed or denied boarding each day at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport.

Finally, Georgetown Law raises privacy concerns, calling the program “a serious escalation of biometric scanning of Americans” without any “codified rules that constrain it.” These concerns have not gone unnoticed, as lawmakers have since sent a letter to DHS to ask for more information about the program. But for the time being, you may have to have your face scanned at the airport.

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