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Publish Date: 
Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The government plans to use facial recognition and iris scanning to foreigners’ visa status as they’re leaving the United States, according to Nextgov. At a new biometric testing center in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, government officials will spend the next eight to 12 months working on the technology and its application for its premiere in 10 major airports by 2015.

Post-Sept. 11th legislation outlined the need for entry and exit biometric identification of foreigners in airports. This is the exit part, since entry has been largely dealt with. In July 2013, the Los Angeles Times reported that the biometric scanning program was expected to cost $7 billion. It’s not clear if that price tag even includes the testing facility.

The system will be a facial and iris scanning device that will be put in place at the departing regions of the airport. The goal is to identify any foreign people leaving (using biometric info collected when they received their entry visas) and to reference their pertinent travel information. This is meant to complete the overall coverage for who is exiting and entering the country so immigration officials in Customs and Border Protection can be aware of who is properly acting out the parameters of their visa, or if they have one at all.

There are some big holes here: All of the Sept. 11 terrorists had legitimate visas to come here. And while Customs and Border Protection thinks that this could help fight illegal immigration, the vast majority of the undocumented do not travel by plane, and the ones who do typically come in with legal visas and outstay their limits. (According to NextGov, CBP plans to start testing similar technology for those exiting by land in 2015.)

Then there are the civil liberties problems. Jennifer Lynch, senior staff attorney of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, is concerned about the program’s costs, its efficacy, and privacy implications. “It seems like a lot of money being spent on technology that will be challenging to implement and may not be all that accurate,” she told me. In FBI documents about the Next Generation Identification system, a similar recognition system, she says, “they’re claiming about an 85 percent accuracy rate,” she says. Lynch worries that 15 percent could be a big enough gap to incriminate a large amount of people, considering how many people travel through airports every year.

And what will happen to the data? "It’s not really clear how it’s going to link up to other government databases. It’s possible that it’s going to link up to the existing Department of State facial recognition database,” Lynch says. She expresses concern over where and how the information collected will be stored or used. She points out that the government often shares their information between departments. Considering how long it took us to find out about the NSA’s overreaches, information sharing could go on for years without us knowing.

Ryan Calo, assistant professor of law at the University of Washington and a privacy expert, told me that he’s concerned with how facial recognition technology could judge the mental state of exiting passengers. “What I worry about with biometrics is the capacity to tell things like: Is this person nervous? Are they lying? … I worry about too closely studying human subjects at the borders, in or out,” he says. There are currently technologies that can register your emotion using facial recognition, and the new DHS program could include such abilities.

Moreover, by its very nature, this sort of technology is likely to collect data from people not considered “foreigners.” But Lynch says that is something the DHS is currently not supposed to do: The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 states the government should not to monitor U.S. citizens at places like airports without probable cause—only foreign travelers. It is easy to imagine the program collecting—even accidentally—massive amounts of data from citizens who aren’t meant to be monitored. (I attempted to contact the Department of Homeland Security but have not received a response.)

The biometric program the government is currently testing and planning to use isn’t just a waste of money—it could have serious ramifications for citizens of the United States and those who visit.