Invasive New Airport Screenings May Put Privacy at Risk

It’s a Christmas motif almost as ubiquitous as Christmas trees or sleigh bells—families and individuals hastily making their way through airports, balancing presents, bags, and children, excited to make their way home to spend Christmas with their loved ones.

They’re concerned with their flight status, the weather in their destination, their luggage making it to the destination, or the likelihood they will get selected for a random TSA pat-down and any other number of travel-related factors.

But in 2018, there may be another worry to add to that already long list of travel woes.

At some point next year, the Department Homeland Security is hoping to implement mandatory facial scans for all people—American citizens included—who are flying internationally. In fact, they’ve already rolled out this invasive practice in a handful of airports this holiday season.

This new invasion of Americans’ privacy caught the attention of Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., whose own Logan International Airport was one of the airports selected for the rollout. We wrote a letter together to get more information from Homeland Security about this program.

There are a number of issues with this program, including that Homeland Security hasn’t instituted a way to let travelers know that they will be subjected to this scan before they fly.

But more importantly there is no evidence to show that this facial scan actually works. Homeland Security is hoping to use this technology accurately 96 percent of the time. But even at that rate, 1 of 25 travelers would still be misidentified and improperly flagged by Homeland Security.

Additional evidence shows gender and ethnicity increase the likelihood of being improperly flagged.

But perhaps the biggest concern is how the government will use this accumulated data and whether or not Homeland Security is even allowed to collect it in the first place.

As of now, the information is supposedly only shared with the National Institute of Standards and Technology to check for fraud, and then deleted from the Homeland Security database after 14 days.

But in our examination of the program, we have not seen satisfactory safeguards that protect this information from being accessed by third-party groups or that show these protocols are actually being followed.

The Department of Homeland Security is ushering in this program in an attempt to fulfill a congressional mandate that says a biometric exit program needs to be in place for international travelers. However, they have gone beyond this directive as the mandate passed by Congress did not allow for facial scans to be used on American citizens.

For the Department of Homeland Security to do this stands in direct conflict with the Constitution and its Fourth Amendment protection of privacy.

Until the Department of Homeland Security is willing to address these problems and provide myself, Markey, and Congress sufficient evidence to prove the program falls within the constraints of its congressional mandate, Homeland Security should provide American citizens with a timely Christmas present—protecting their rights by not only stopping this program’s expansion, but stopping it’s use entirely.

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