December 21, 2017 - Georgetown Privacy Center Issues New Report on Use of Facial Recognition Scans At Airports

Georgetown's Center on Privacy & Technology issued a new report today on the increasing use of facial recognition technology at U.S. airports. The report, "Not Ready for TakeOff: Face Scans at Airport Departure Gates" describes this technology as a "a billion dollar solution in search of a problem." Released today, the report has already prompted a bipartisan Congressional response from U.S. Senators Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Ed Markey (D-Mass).

The report notes that U.S. and foreign travelers departing from at least 8 U.S. airports—in Boston, Atlanta, Chicago, Las Vegas, Miami, New York City, Houston, and Washington D.C.—are currently having their faces scanned for comparison to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)'s biometric database. DHS' current plans would expand the program to every traveler departing the United States by plane, at a projected cost of $1 billion. 

The report flags several major legal and technical problems with this approach: most notably, that Congress has never clearly authorized the border collection of biometrics from American citizens using face recognition technology; and that DHS has failed to comply with a federal law requiring it to conduct a rulemaking process to implement the airport face scanning program.

The report also flags that the face scanning technology used by DHS may also make frequent mistakes. The authors write:

"According to DHS’ own data, DHS’ face recognition systems erroneously reject as many as 1 in 25 travelers using valid credentials. At this high rate, DHS’ error-prone face scanning system could cause 1,632 passengers to be wrongfully delayed or denied boarding every day at New York’s John F. Kennedy (JFK) International Airport alone. What’s more, DHS does not appear to have any sense of how effective its system will be at actually catching impostors—the system’s primary goal."

The report makes several recommendations—including that DHS should justify its use of this costly program; the agency should stop the program until it has conducted the required rulemaking; that DHS should prove that the technology works well without a high rate of false results; and that DHS should adopt safeguards to prevent secondary uses of facial recognition data. The report also underscores airlines' responsibility to ensure DHS follows these measures before agreeing to permit the use of such technology. View the full report and recommendations here.

Senator Ed Markey (D-Mass) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) responded to the report immediately on Tuesday by issuing a letter to DHS questioning the use of airport facial recognition scans. 

“We are concerned that the use of the program on U.S. citizens remains facially unauthorized,” the Senators write. “We request that DHS stop the expansion of this program and provide Congress with its explicit statutory authority to use and expand a biometric exit program on U.S. citizens.” 

The New York Times provided excellent coverage of the report, and you can view the Privacy Center's Harrison Rudolph (L'16) discuss the report in a Facebook Live interview here.

As always, you can follow Georgetown Law's phenomenal privacy team on Twitter at @GeorgetownCPT.