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Homeland Security wants to expand airport facial scans to U.S. citizens

U.S. citizens exiting and entering the country at facilities such as airports are currently exempt from the facial scan process demanded of noncitizens, but that could soon change.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) recently proposed expanding facial recognition checks to Americans “to help prevent persons attempting to fraudulently use U.S. travel documents and identify criminals and known or suspected terrorists.”

Facial recognition technology used in this context would scan a traveler’s face before matching it with an image held on a database. The technology flags up any anomalies that would then be investigated on the spot. The system has been used at U.S. airports for more than a decade, with noncitizens also required to give their fingerprints.

Hardly surprisingly, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has reacted with dismay at the DHS’s proposed rule change to start using facial scanning on U.S. citizens.

“Travelers, including U.S. citizens, should not have to submit to invasive biometric scans simply as a condition of exercising their constitutional right to travel,” Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst at the ACLU, said in a statement this week.

He added: “The government’s insistence on hurtling forward with a large-scale deployment of this powerful surveillance technology raises profound privacy concerns.”

Stanley said that despite the U.S. government telling the public and members of Congress “time and time again” that the nation’s citizens “would not be required to submit to this intrusive surveillance technology as a condition of traveling,” the latest proposal from the DHS suggests that the government “is reneging on what was already an insufficient promise.”

The analyst also questioned the government’s ability to handle the collected data, pointing to a cyberattack on a U.S. Customs and Border Protection subcontractor earlier this year that saw hackers steal photos of travelers — along with images of their vehicle license plates — exiting and entering the country.

Commenting on the incident at the time, San Francisco-based civil liberties group Electronic Frontier Foundation said: “The inherent risk of such theft is among the reasons why the government should not be amassing this sensitive information in the first place.”

As for the proposal to expand facial recognition scans to all travelers exiting and entering the country, Michael Hardin, who oversees exit/entry policy and planning at the DHS, told CNN this week that the plan is in the “final stages of clearance.” But he added that it wouldn’t launch until a subsequent public consultation process had been completed.

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