Facial recognition may soon add to your pre-flight stress.

Image: AP/REX/Shutterstock

When President Donald Trump issued his infamous travel ban in January, it consumed headlines for days. 

But little attention was paid to other provisions in the executive order—including one that sped up the implementation of a program that could soon result in the facial scanning of every person taking a flight from anywhere in the United States.

The program is a part of a larger plan called Biometric Exit, which is operated by the folks at Customs and Border Protection, a division of the Department of Homeland Security. 

Biometric Exit had been in the works for well over a decade. The program’s intent is to make sure U.S. visa holders leaving the country aren’t lying about their identity. CBP has decided to do this through photo-matching. 

The process works by matching passport and visa photos of U.S. visa holders to photos taken at the airport from which they’re departing the country. This helps the U.S. make sure the people getting on the plane are the same people who hold those visas. 

The agency plans to expand the program to seven different airports over the summer, and they already started a beta program in 2016 at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta. CBP tested facial recognition on passengers taking select flights to Tokyo, Japan and Mexico City.

In an emailed statement, CBP insisted they’re focused on integrating facial recognition into the traveling process such that passengers barely notice the added security measure. Facial recognition will have to be “simple for travelers to comply with” and “travelers shouldn’t have to learn something new.” The statement also mentioned a focus on privacy several times. 

Image: Education Images/UIG/Getty Images/Universal Images Group

But there are reasons to be skeptical of the agency’s supposed focus on privacy. Facial recognition technology isn’t able to recognize white women or black people as well as it’s able to identify white men, leading to an increased likelihood that such technology would more often mismatch a white woman or black person’s photos. It’s unclear what the CBP plans to do to mitigate that bias, if anything. 

“There’s a risk that, because of who you are — what gender you are or the color of your skin — the system might be more likely to make a mistake,” said Alvaro Bedoya, the director of Georgetown University’s Center on Privacy and Technology. 

There’s also a significant chance that this facial recognition program will expand to all flyers in the United States, including American citizens. 

CBP Deputy Assistant Commissioner John Wagner alluded to this possibility at a conference last week, when he said he wanted to make facial recognition “available for every transaction in the airport where you have to show an ID today.”

“We are working closely with stakeholders to ensure successful implementation of biometric exit and exploring potential for inbound arrivals and other processes,” CBP public affairs officer Jennifer Gabris said in an emailed statement. 

“I don’t think people realize what’s coming”

At that point, it’s not hard to cross-reference photos of American citizens with other photo databases.

“Why not suddenly run those photos against databases of criminal record photos?” Bedoya asked. “Suddenly flying isn’t just about flying and safety in the air, it’s about putting people in jail.”

Bedoya knows facial recognition isn’t something the vast majority of flyers are likely to encounter in the U.S. at the moment, but he said the situation he described isn’t as farfetched as some might presume. Databases work by cross-referencing with other databases, and there are plenty of photos in databases of those with criminal records. 

There’s also, of course, a good chance that this facial recognition technology could misidentify travelers in a way that could — at the very least — ruin a trip. 

“I don’t think people realize what’s coming,” he said. 

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