Future Tense

Airport Face Scans Could Be a Dry Run for a National Surveillance System

First come the airports …


Sixteen years after Sept. 11, we’re all well-aware that in order to go through security at an American airport, we will have to use a driver’s license or passport to identify ourselves. But Congress is quietly laying groundwork to take things much, much further—to build out a face scanning system that identifies you when you walk into an airport and tracks your every move, until you board the plane.

The TSA Modernization Act is scheduled to be marked up in the Senate Commerce Committee this week. From the title it sounds like a harmless bill to get the airport security agency new computers. But an alarming section in the bill would give the Trump administration a green light to begin using biometrics to identify people in airports nationwide. And right now there’s only one technology fit for a biometric surveillance system: automated, real-time face scans.

This could mean scans of every person’s face throughout the entirety of every American airport—“at checkpoints, screening lanes, bag drop and boarding areas, and other areas.” Basically, it could go anywhere the Department of Homeland Security determines that the technology could improve security.

The bill, if enacted, would represent a profound, if woefully predictable, escalation of DHS’s use of face recognition at international terminals. A surveillance system of this scale would have no analogue in the department’s history. It’s obvious why: Most people don’t want to be subject to constant surveillance—to always be watched, and always presumed to be up to no good. Such a system would chill free speech, thwart free movement, and stifle free association.

Imagine, for example, how such a system would affect would-be protesters. In January, Americans converged on airport terminals nationwide to stand up against Trump’s Muslim ban. Journalists have already uncovered that DHS photographed airport protesters. What if DHS were able to identify some of those protesters in real time, running those images against a target watch list? Especially in light of the Trump administration’s reputation for going after its detractors, a lot of people might think twice before speaking up.

Before you shrug your shoulders and say you have nothing to hide, consider that face recognition is an imperfect technology, prone to making mistakes. When London police used similar technology at a festival, it was plagued by false matches, and led to the wrongful arrest of someone falsely tagged as having a warrant out for their arrest. Suppose you’re running to make your flight and are misidentified as a person of interest or someone on the no-fly list. What then? You’re delayed—and TSA is going to shrug its shoulders when you miss your flight. You may even be subject to the same mistaken identity each time you fly.

There’s no reason to trust the government to limit real time face recognition surveillance to airports, either. Surveillance programs have a tendency to expand beyond their initial design. In fact, the airport-wide face scanning program foreshadowed by the TSA Modernization Act would itself be an expansion of the “biometric exit” program already in use at some international terminals. Back in August, DHS disputed that that program would be made interoperable with terrorist screening databases. But another bill advancing in Congress would require just that. Also in August, DHS denied that face scans would be used in domestic airports. Now the TSA Modernization Act would enable that as well.

If DHS expands its face recognition capabilities outside of airports, its most likely targets will be immigrants in other public spaces. After all, DHS already uses other powerful surveillance technologies like cellphone trackers and automated license plate readers to track immigrants and hunt down those slated for deportation. There’s also a database of nearly every immigrant’s photograph. It seems eminently foreseeable that the Trump administration would jump to add a face recognition surveillance system to its anti-immigrant arsenal.

This would be tragic. Deployment of face recognition surveillance in immigrant communities would establish prime conditions for intimidation and even harassment. Imagine if an immigration agent matched your face to an immigration watch list and stopped you on the sidewalk, or detained you at one of the more than 170 checkpoints that already litter the landscape in the 100-mile United States “border zone.” In the border zone, DHS has some extra power (based on the theory that the country’s borders require extra protection), but the “zone” is enormous and densely populated—more than two-thirds of Americans live there.

Face recognition surveillance could even be deadly if the fear of identification prevented immigrants from accessing health care or disaster shelters. For the millions of immigrants increasingly forced to live in the shadows, the stakes simply could not be higher.

Americans who feel immune to this dragnet shouldn’t get too comfortable. In 2004, Congress instructed DHS to begin collecting biometric data from foreign nationals leaving the country, but 12 years later DHS started collecting biometrics from Americans leaving the country, too. If Congress gives its blessing for DHS to develop a real time face recognition surveillance system, pretty soon it will be your mug being scanned in public.