The Acting Commissioner of the US Customs and Border Protection agency has taken the opportunity of a concerned inquiry from two US senators to clarify the CBP’s actions with respect to biometric border screening.
The letter, co-signed by Democrat Edward Markey and Republican Mike Lee, was framed as a request for further information as the Department of Homeland Security’s facial recognition program continues to expand across the country. Chief among their concerns was the issue of accuracy, with senators asserting that “under DHS’s true accept rate goal, there would still be a false denial for one in 25 travelers,” with differences in the effectiveness of the technology against different races and genders compounding the issue; and “most crucially,” the issue that in mandating a biometric entry-exit program, Congress did not authorize biometric scanning for US citizens, but only for foreign nationals.
In a written response to the letter, Commissioner Kevin McAleenan explains that, contrary to a recent report from the Georgetown Law Center on Privacy and Technology, Americans’ participation in its biometric scanning program is entirely voluntary, presented as a means “to streamline parts of the travel process.” As for accuracy, McAleenan says that in assessing the technology with 159,000 travelers between January 1st and November 30th of last year, the “CBP has been able to successfully photograph and match 97 percent of travelers who have photos in U.S. Government systems,” and that those who don’t match are not necessarily denied travel, but rather are processed manually. McAleenan goes on to note that the accuracy variation between men and women “is less than one percent,” and that “CBP has yet to see a significant variance in match rate which can be attributed to demographic variables.” Nevertheless, he says, the CBP will continue to assess and improve its technology incrementally.
Moreover, while Senators Markey and Lee did not place a strong focus on citizens’ privacy in their inquiry, McAleenan notes that the “CBP has published numerous Privacy Impact Assessments explaining all aspects fo the program to the public,” and has “reach out proactively to privacy advocacy groups in an effort to be transparent,” pointing to meetings convened in August of last year and last month.
February 16, 2018 – by Alex Perala