- Jeremy Schwartz American-Statesman Staff
U.S. Customs and Border Protection has long sought a way to identify the millions of travelers who leave the country each year through land border crossings into Mexico and Canada.
The logistical hurdles have been monumental: At the U.S.-Mexico border in particular, setting up an exit checkpoint could cause disastrous traffic backups and disrupt trade. When Congress ordered the agency to use biometrics to identify travelers leaving the country, the technology was in its infancy.
But thanks to quantum leaps in facial recognition technology, especially over the past year, the future is arriving sooner than most Americans realize. As early as this summer, CBP will set up a pilot program to digitally scan the faces of drivers and passengers — while they are in moving vehicles — at the busy Anzalduas Port of Entry outside of McAllen, the agency announced Thursday.
The agency will use the results of the South Texas effort to set the stage for a wider rollout along the southern and northern borders, where the technology someday could be used to identify fugitives or wanted terror suspects. Customs and Border Protection already operates facial recognition exit programs at nearly a dozen international airports, including Houston’s, aimed at making sure travelers are who they say they are.
“Traveler acceptance is really high, and we can thank the Apples and the Googles for that,” said Colleen Manaher, CBP executive director of planning, program analysis and evaluation, in an interview at the Border Security Expo in San Antonio, where she revealed the Anzalduas project. “It’s a game-changer.”
While agency officials say facial recognition technology has the potential to transform how we travel, possibly doing away with the need for passports, boarding passes and other travel documents, some critics foresee more dystopian outcomes. Analysts at the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Georgetown University’s Center on Privacy and Technology have argued the program could lead to “mission creep” in the form of additional, unauthorized government scanning. At least two members of Congress have questioned whether the agency’s program illegally spies on American citizens.
In a December letter to Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, U.S. Sens. Edward Markey, D-Mass., and Mike Lee, R-Utah, requested that the program’s expansion be halted until the agency can demonstrate its legality.
“While Congress has repeatedly voted to authorize biometric entry-exit scanning of foreign nationals, it has never authorized biometric exit scanning for U.S. citizens,” the senators wrote. “In fact, Congress has pointedly neglected to authorize biometric exit scanning for U.S. citizens.”
Homeland Security Department officials say U.S. law allowing customs agents to check citizenship when travelers leave the country permits the agency to conduct facial recognition scans. “The authorities are clear and fundamental,” Manaher told a crowd of vendors, government contractors and officials Thursday at the Border Security expo.
‘A home run,’ CBP official says
Last year, researchers at Tennessee’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which is sponsored by the U.S. Energy Department, began to crack the challenges that make facial recognition technology so difficult to apply to moving vehicles.
Tinting and sun glare can make car windows impenetrable to normal cameras and to be effective the facial recognition cameras need to identify both drivers and passengers, even those riding in the back seats. Faces will be at different heights; some surely would be angled away from the camera.
Manaher said the Oak Ridge researchers have developed technology that lets cameras penetrate glare and tint so strong that she couldn’t see through the vehicle with the naked eye. She said that even if cameras at Port Anzalduas are able to identify only 50 percent of travelers driving over the bridge, “that’s a home run. Right now, I don’t have anything.”
Customs and Border Protection has challenged tech firms in Silicon Valley and beyond to refine the technology and make it ever more accurate. In November, the agency held an industry day at Menlo Park, Calif., (home to Facebook) to spur interest in tackling the problem.
“We hope it drives industry,” Manaher said.
But academics at Georgetown’s Center on Privacy and Technology said the facial recognition program currently used at airports needs an urgent overhaul even before the land program begins. “We found it to be riddled with technical and legal problems,” said Harrison Rudolph, an associate at the center.
The Georgetown center’s report argued that even its 96 percent accuracy rate means that a handful of travelers on nearly every flight could expect to be misidentified (the agency compares photos taken at the airport departure gate to passport photos and other official documents). The researchers further said the agency hadn’t done enough to ensure personal biometric data doesn’t end up in the hands of third parties.
Shortly after the report was released in late December, the International Biometrics and Identity Association issued a lengthy rebuttal (copies of the 20-page, glossy magazine-style publication were a hot commodity at the expo this week) affirming CBP’s legal authority to scan all travelers, noting that the latest accuracy rate had increased to 98 percent and insisting that the technology would not lead to data breaches or foster wider government surveillance.
“The inclusion of U.S. citizens in the implementation of the Biometric Exit pilots is highly important to deter claims of U.S. citizenship by imposters to bypass the checks,” the trade group wrote. The agency’s program, it added, relies on the same facial recognition technologies that are “used worldwide.”
Texas still cool to biometrics
Countries such as Russia and China are using face recognition technology on a scale beyond what the Homeland Security Department is proposing. According to Bloomberg News, Moscow officials are adding facial recognition technology to the city’s 170,000 surveillance cameras to compare images to photos of wanted suspects in police databases. The same Russian company behind that effort, Ntech.Lab, previously released a mobile app allowing users to look up a stranger’s social media accounts by taking a photo.
China is building a national database of all its 1.3 billion citizens aimed at allowing authorities to match a person’s face to their ID, a massive, 13-terabyte data set that could also be connected to camera surveillance systems.
The 2020 Tokyo Olympics will employ facial recognition technology to prevent imposters from penetrating secured areas. Casinos are beginning to use the technology to identify banned players and known card counters. In the U.S., the Caliburger company in California is linking the technology to its loyalty program, allowing customers to pay with their faces.
Texas, however has more reservations about the new technology. It is one of two states (along with Illinois) with laws banning the use of biometric data like face scans for commercial purposes. That’s why Texans haven’t been able to use a popular Google app that allows users to compare their faces to famous works of art.
Texas’ strong libertarian streak also means the state has been hot and cold on the idea of southbound checkpoints for travelers leaving the state and entering Mexico. In 2011, a bill calling for southbound checkpoints to look for drugs and money died in the Legislature and wasn’t reintroduced in 2013.
But the pendulum swung somewhat in 2015, when, as part of a push to bolster border security spending by $800 million, the Legislature authorized the Department of Public Safety to assist federal agencies at southbound checkpoints.