The American Civil Liberties Union has sued for information about the Trump administration’s controversial facial recognition programs. The ACLU’s suit demands more detail on how border control agents scan travelers’ faces at the US border as well as plans to expand face recognition capabilities, which enable “undetectable, persistent government surveillance on a massive scale.”
The ACLU has filed public records requests with US Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), all part of the Department of Homeland Security. It’s looking for communications around the Traveler Verification Service, a system that matches photographs of travelers’ faces against a database of images.
The request also covers a broad range of concerns around facial recognition. It includes agreements with private companies like airlines as well as formal and informal policies about who can access and store data. It wants detail on some nebulous future plans to expand facial recognition capabilities, potentially making it tough for American citizens to enter or exit the country without having their faces scanned and logged. And it wants information about the pitfalls that these biometric systems face, including potential bias that makes them less accurate at identifying certain faces.
Border control agencies tested facial recognition systems under the Obama administration, but they’ve expanded rapidly under President Donald Trump. So far, American citizens can opt out of the process, but CBP proposed making them mandatory last year, then backed down amid criticism of the plan.
“The public lacks essential information about CBP’s reversal on its intended rulemaking,” writes the ACLU in its complaint. “It also lacks essential information about CBP’s and TSA’s plans to expand facial recognition technology at airports and the border; how photographs or ‘face prints’ obtained by CBP or TSA will be accessed by airports, airlines, and commercial vendors, as well as federal, state, and local authorities; and how ineffective, discriminatory, and costly this facial recognition technology may be.”
Facial recognition — by governments and corporations alike — is a growing concern among privacy advocates. San Francisco and two other cities have barred government use of the technology, and the European Union has considered a temporary ban of it in public spaces, with tentative support from Google.