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DHS Goes Biometric, Says Travelers Can Opt Out Of Face Scans By Not Traveling

The DHS has decided air travel is the unsafest thing of all. In the wake of multiple fear mongering presidential directives -- including a travel ban currently being contested in federal courts -- the DHS has introduced several measures meant to make flying safer, but in reality would only make flying more of a pain in the ass.

The government has argued in court that flying is a privilege, not a right, and the DHS seems hellbent on making fliers pay for every bit of that privilege. We've seen laptop bans introduced as a stick to push foreign airports to engage in more security theater and a threat to rifle through all travelers' books and papers to ensure nobody's reading explosive devices.

Now, the DHS is going to be scanning everyone's faces as they board/disembark international flights.

The Department of Homeland Security says it’s the only way to successfully expand a program that tracks nonimmigrant foreigners. They have been required by law since 2004 to submit to biometric identity scans — but to date have only had their fingerprints and photos collected prior to entry.

Now, DHS says it’s finally ready to implement face scans on departure — aimed mainly at better tracking visa overstays but also at tightening security.

The DHS swears it won't be retaining face scans of US persons, but apparently never considered limiting the collection to foreign travelers. Instead, the DHS will "collect them all" and supposedly toss out US citizens' scans later.

John Wagner, the Customs deputy executive assistant commissioner in charge of the program, confirmed in an interview that U.S. citizens departing on international flights will submit to face scans.

Wagner says the agency has no plans to retain the biometric data of U.S. citizens and will delete all scans of them within 14 days.

This sounds good (other than the collect-them-all approach) but Wagner's not done talking. The DHS is obviously hoping to make use of US persons' scans at some point.

However, [Wagner] doesn’t rule out CBP keeping them in the future after going “through the appropriate privacy reviews and approvals.”

This makes the promise of a 14-day deletion period dubious. The DHS would seemingly prefer to keep everything it collects, so this deletion promise may morph into data segregation, with the government keeping domestic scans in their own silo for possible use later.

The program is already being deployed at a handful of major airports. During the trial run, passengers will be able to opt out of the collection. But the DHS's own Privacy Impact Assessment [PDF] makes it clear it won't be optional for long.

Privacy Risk: There is a risk to individual participation because individuals may be denied boarding if they refuse to submit to biometric identity verification under the TVS.

Mitigation: This privacy risk is partially mitigated. Although the redress and access procedures above provide for an individual’s ability to correct his or her information, the only way for an individual to ensure he or she is not subject to collection of biometric information when traveling internationally is to refrain from traveling. [emphasis added] Individuals seeking to travel internationally are subject to the laws and rules enforced by CBP and are subject to inspection.

To opt-out is to not travel. Considering this affects international flights, the DHS has a very good chance of achieving 100% compliance.

But there are other percentages to be concerned about, like accuracy. The DHS has a 96% accuracy requirement for face scanning tech (but, oddly, not for its TSA employees...), but its Privacy Impact Awareness report doesn't actually say whether vendors have been able to hit that mark. In practical terms, what's being deployed could still be well under that percentage. Considering the number of things that need to go right to obtain a useful face scan, the error rate could be far above 4% once less-than-ideal capture conditions are factored in.

Whatever privacy assurances are being given now, expect them to be whittled down in the future, especially if the government continues to engage in reactionary, fear-based lawmaking. With the exception of some post-Snowden surveillance reforms, the government's desire to collect databases full of US persons' info has only steadily increased since September 11, 2001.

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