An alarming new report issued by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) says that the government could soon push mechanisms ensuring that its TSA airport security personnel never selectively hasten the screening process in order for passengers to catch their flight on time, but that gathering biometric data through controls like facial recognition technology will soon be a requirement for all boarding procedures.
The new report on the Biometric Entry-Exit Program authored the DHS Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General gives a glowing review of controversial new biometric surveillance, already in a test roll out at dozens of major airports nationwide, but notes some hurdles remain to broader implementation, especially the “hurdle” of airlines insisting that passengers be allowed to make their flights on time.
Over a year ago DHS and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) announced that they would integrate government databases with a private tech company to speed up biometric processing which involves the capturing of facial scans to match them with files already in the system. This initially rolled out only at a couple of select airports. But since that time the program has exploded to include a dozen or more international airports.
It’s essentially what China has already implemented on a large, Orwellian scale, and involves plans for possible mandatory face scans for all travelers to foreign destinations. The new Biometric Entry-Exit Program report is among the first major reviews of the experimental program’s performance and effectiveness.
And naturally the DHS bureaucrats’ absolute last concern is actual airport and airline timely travel and efficiency. The Intercept reports among the chief problems: “the report notes with palpable frustration, was that airlines insist on letting their passengers depart on time, rather than subjecting them to a Homeland Security surveillance prototype plagued by technical issues and slowdowns.”
The key section of the DHS report is as follows :
Demanding flight departure schedules posed other operational problems that significantly hampered biometric matching of passengers during the pilot in 2017. Typically, when incoming flights arrived behind schedule, the time allotted for boarding departing flights was reduced. In these cases, CBP allowed airlines to bypass biometric processing in order to save time. As such, passengers could proceed with presenting their boarding passes to gate agents without being photographed and biometrically matched by CBP first. We observed this scenario at the Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport when an airline suspended the biometric matching process early to avoid a flight delay. This resulted in approximately 120 passengers boarding the flight without biometric confirmation.
Later in the report deep concern is voiced over airlines’ consistently pushing for flights to depart in a timely manner. These pressures result in local TSA screening agents “Repeatedly permitting airlines to revert to standard flight-boarding procedures without biometric processing may become a habit that is difficult to break.”
The DHS complains about this despite that elsewhere in the report they admit, “airline officials we interviewed indicated the processing time was generally acceptable and did not contribute to departure delays.”
Citing the goal of being able to scan and capture biometric data on “100% of all departing passengers” by 2021, the report laments that current difficulties in the screening process could make this impossible, especially in light of the pesky airlines pushing for consistently timely departure.
The report concludes that current logistical problems “pose significant risks to CBP scaling up the biometric program to process 100 percent of all departing passengers by 2021.”
In a worrisome section of the document, officials make the suggestion that “enforcement mechanisms or back-up procedures to prevent airlines from bypassing biometric processing prior to flight boarding.”
Meanwhile privacy advocates and civil libertarians have long decried the government overstep and abuse inherent in such biometric scanning.
One privacy researcher, Harrison Rudolph, who runs the Center on Privacy and Technology at Georgetown University Law School, was cited by NPR during the early phase of the program as saying: “DHS hasn’t issued a single rule under this program to protect Americans’ privacy,” and added, “So what DHS decides to do with this information tomorrow, I’m not sure. And without rules there may be few protections for Americans’ privacy.”
With such issues left completely unsettled, and with the government claiming it would never, never abuse such a technology… the consistent refrain in reports over the last year has been its fast coming to an airport near you.
And clearly DHS and TSA could care less whether or not you actually catch your flight.