This article was adapted from the Aug. 4 edition of the Border Chronicle. Subscribe to the Border Chronicle here.
Today, most travelers entering the U.S. have to undergo this weird thing: After officials take a headshot, software determines the geography of your face, including the distance between your eyes, the distance from your forehead to chin, and different facial landmarks. Your facial signature then becomes a mathematical formula that can be compared to a database of tens of millions (hundreds of millions?) of known faces—or, if you are crossing the border, with your visa, passport, or even driver’s license photo.
Sounds like this has the potential to be creepy, right? Well, to set the record straight, House Homeland Security Committee member Clay Higgins, a Republican from Louisiana, argued before Congress in July that it’s just fine, just a matter of convenience.
“The image that has been presented to the citizens that we serve is that this is some sort of nefarious technology and big brother is watching you,” the congressman said. “But really it’s using photographic images that travelers willingly have provided, or are available on their passports or visas, or driver’s licenses. We already have that information.”
As Higgins spoke during a hearing titled “Assessing CBP’s Use of Facial Recognition Technology,” he looked at Daniel Tanciar, the chief innovation officer of Pangiam, a company founded in 2020 that aims “to revolutionize the future of operations, security, and safety at airports, seaports, and land border crossings through the use of emerging technologies.” This company works with Customs and Border Protection on its sweeping, unprecedented deployment of facial recognition technology. That Pangiam is in the mix on this shouldn’t be a surprise. The company’s CEO is former CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan. If you don’t remember, he was the guy in charge of border enforcement when agents were tearing apart families in 2018.
Higgins stressed the efficiency and convenience of this expanding technology, which is affecting more and more people. “It just speeds up the traveler’s passage through the security checkpoint,” he said.
At the International Summit on Borders that I attended in D.C. in June 2018, there was a panel titled “The Border Force Officer of the Future.” I was taken aback when one of the panel’s participants, an immigration official from Canada, said that with the direction of global border control, “The face that God gave you the day you were born will be your passport.”
Though chilling, this seemed far-fetched. Four years later, however, I see that I did not realize how fast it was all arriving, fueled by the public-private partnership exemplified by Higgins and Tanciar—a partnership that is powerful yet hidden. Not once at the hearing was Tanciar asked about his financial stake in the facial recognition system he was promoting. In his testimony, Tanciar gushed that “over 100 million travelers have been successfully processed by CBP’s use of this technology. While there are always improvements that can be made, CBP has implemented a well-performing program that meets the congressional biometric mandate while maintaining privacy, civil liberties, and data security.”
Facial recognition has become the primary biometric technology for CBP. Everyone who enters the country has their picture taken, though supposedly people can opt out (that often isn’t obvious, thanks to a lack of signage; I cross the border constantly and have never seen anything about opting out). The surveillance technology has also been deployed at 32 airports for people exiting the country. CBP partners with airports and airlines to add another layer to this private-public nexus.
During the hearing, Rebecca Gambler of the Government Accountability Office testified that CBP “is in the early stages of pilot testing the technology for other areas of the land environment.” She did not give details about what that means. According to internal documents, during previous secretive tests of facial recognition in Arizona and Texas, authorities obtained a “massive amount of data,” including images of “people leaving for work, picking up children from school, and carrying out other daily routines.” And DHS has called for companies to develop medium-sized drones with facial recognition cameras.
Market forecasts, such as this one from Grand View Research, predict that the global facial recognition market will nearly triple its worth in seven years—from $4.45 billion in 2021 to $12 billion in 2028. As GVR explains, “The market for facial recognition technology is growing enormously. … From its application in social media and mobile technology to security applications at airports, law enforcement, and targeted marketing campaigns, the deployment of facial recognition technology is inevitably part of our future.”
There were, however, witnesses at the July hearing, such as Jeramie Scott of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, who were not so keen on a future of constant techno-surveillance. In his testimony, Scott described facial recognition as a “dangerous surveillance technology” and said it poses “serious threats to our privacy and civil liberties.”
And Jesse Franzblau, senior policy analyst at the National Immigrant Justice Center, told me:
CBP uses the technology heavily to track migrants along both sides of the U.S. southern and northern borders, and employs the technology at U.S. international and foreign airports, subjecting travelers to dangerous tools that sweep up massive data into U.S. databases with little scrutiny. The technology has an inherent racial, gender, and age bias, compounding existing discriminatory practices common among CBP and ICE agents.
Facial recognition is but one component of a much larger border apparatus composed of walls, drones, armed agents, jails, and an expulsion system that regularly separates family members. It is difficult to separate the one from the other.
Franzblau also zoomed in on the border-industrial complex and stressed that it is vital for members of Congress “to closely examine the link between DHS employees and the surveillance tech industry. The revolving door between DHS officials and companies that benefit from the surveillance tech contracts fuels a toxic cycle of policy choices driven by profit over humanity.”
These links went undiscussed at the July hearing. Higgins did, however, ask what happens if the recognition technology makes an error. “And if for some reason [a traveler’s] image is not recognized or flagged with a false identity, they are pulled out of the line and go through a normal check of a human being. Is that correct?” he asked Tanciar.
“Yes, that is correct,” Tanciar replied. All would be fine was their consensus. Before Tanciar was hired at Pangiam in 2020, he worked at CBP’s biometric entry and exit program for four years. Like his boss McAleenan, he was a living example of the revolving door, in which CBP officials pass from public institutions to private corporations with ease, and presumably grease the wheels of the contract conveyor belt.
Pangiam claims that its technologies are “futureproofed,” because their artificial intelligence can replicate human intuition. It can protect you, the Pangiam website says, from “both today’s threats and, for the first time, the threats of tomorrow.” The border officer of the future is already here, and it is public and private, human and automated, dystopic, and profitable.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.