Artificial Intelligence & Machine Learning , Governance & Risk Management , Next-Generation Technologies & Secure Development

ACLU Files Lawsuit Over Facial Recognition at US Airports

Civil Liberties Group Wants More Clarity From DHS
ACLU Files Lawsuit Over Facial Recognition at US Airports

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the U.S. Department Of Homeland Security and three of its agencies in an effort to learn more about how the department uses facial recognition technology at airports and the country's borders.

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The ACLU lawsuit seeks clarity about DHS' data collection process and whether the government's facial recognition technology deployed under the federal Traveler Verification Service violates citizens' privacy rights. The ACLU is demanding answers about how facial recognition technology is used by the DHS and three of its agencies – the Transportation Security Administration, Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

In the lawsuit, the ACLU alleges that the agencies' increasing use of facial recognition technology at airports and at border crossings to scan travelers faces could pose "profound civil-liberties concerns" and enables "persistent government surveillance on a massive scale."

A DHS spokesperson could not be reached for comment.

Increasing Scrutiny

The Transportation Security Administration and Customs and Border Protection have deployed facial recognition technology to capture "face prints" or photos at 22 U.S. airports to verify travelers’ identification. While U.S citizens can opt out of the process, the measure is mandatory for international travels who are flying in or out of the U.S., according to the lawsuit.

The use of the facial recognition technology has invited intense scrutiny from privacy advocates across the world, who argue that that the increasing use of these identity methods will eventually lead to the abuse of citizens' privacy. Law enforcement agencies and airport authorities in the U.K., Japan, Dubai and India have adopted facial recognition as a way to verify and authenticate passengers (see: Facial Recognition: Balancing Security vs. Privacy)

In the lawsuit, the ACLU argues that the public lacks details about how their facial images are being used by U.S. government authorities.

"Our lawsuit seeks to make public the government’s contracts with airlines, airports and other entities pertaining to the use of face recognition at the airport and the border; policies and procedures concerning the acquisition, processing and retention of our biometric information; and analyses of the effectiveness of facial recognition technology," the ACLU states.

Expanding Facial Recognition

In 2017, U.S. Customs and Border Protection introduced facial recognition under the Traveler Verification Service program, allowing the authorities to photograph international travelers entering or leaving the country. These photographs are then fed into a government database and compared to other images in government datasets for identification purposes.

In a blog post, Ashley Gorsk, an ACLU's staff attorney, noted that as of June 2019, Customs and Border Protection had processed more than 20 million travelers under the program, with 20 U.S. airlines and airports committed to use the technology in coming years. Delta, JetBlue and United Airlines have already partnered with the Customs and Border Protection, Gorski added.

Although Customs and Border Protection allows U.S. citizens to opt out of the surveillance system, in December 2019, DHS attempted to require the use of this technology for tracking all U.S citizens traveling internationally. But the department rolled back the proposal after pressure from Congress and privacy groups, according to the ACLU lawsuit.

Gorski argued that the government is normalizing surveillance.

"Unlike other forms of identity verification, facial recognition technology can enable undetectable, persistent government surveillance on a massive scale," Gorski wrote in the blog. "As this technology becomes increasingly widespread, the government can use it to grab unprecedented power to track individuals’ movements and associations, posing grave risks to privacy and civil liberties."

About the Author

Akshaya Asokan

Akshaya Asokan

Senior Correspondent, ISMG

Asokan is a U.K.-based senior correspondent for Information Security Media Group's global news desk. She previously worked with IDG and other publications, reporting on developments in technology, minority rights and education.

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