PLEASE NOTE: To protect your safety in response to the threats of COVID-19, we are offering our clients the ability to meet with us via telephone or through video conferencing through a number of digital platforms. Please call our office to discuss your options.

Should DHS use face recognition technology on Americans?

The government of China is running one of the most expansive surveillance networks in history, but the United States isn’t far behind. Is a society where we are constantly tracked, compared to watchlists and hauled in for legal violations the society we really want?

The use of face recognition technology is already becoming pervasive in the United States, but nowhere as common as it is at the airport. There, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), through its agency Customs & Border Protection (CBP), is running a face recognition protocol called the Traveler Verification Service, or TVS.

At a growing number of airports, according to the ACLU, CBP is asking people, including U.S. citizens, to submit to a photograph at departing aircraft gates. The photos are then compared to a gallery of photos, usually passport and visa pictures, of the flight’s passengers. The idea is to ensure that no one who isn’t registered for the flight gets on board.

The technology is flawed and biased

But face recognition is not a tried-and-true technology. A large government study of almost 200 face recognition algorithms found that the technology is not only flawed but racially biased. For example, both African-American and Asian people were up to 100 times more likely than white people to be misidentified. Native American people had the highest rate of misidentification, which means a false match with another person. Women are also more likely to be misidentified than men.

When the CPB misidentifies someone using face recognition technology, it can mean serious trouble. It might mean you miss your flight. It might mean you are interrogated aggressively. It might even mean arrest or deportation.

Yet the CBP is actively working to expand its TVS program to all TSA checkpoints, exposing millions of passengers to a flawed technology that could falsely identify them as someone else. Moreover, although submitting to face recognition is currently optional for American Citizens, the government said the TSA’s body scanners would be optional, too. They were quietly made mandatory several years ago.

Once the capacity to run face recognition software on travelers becomes entrenched at each TSA checkpoint, it seems likely that the technology will be expanded to the rest of our society. At that point, we could be constantly surveilled and checked against a growing number of lists.

The ACLU is working on getting the details of these programs made public, but that may not be enough to prevent a massive surveillance state from becoming real in the United States.

What do you think needs to be done to address the growth of face recognition technology and protect our privacy rights?