The facial recognition pilot program launched last week by US Customs and Border Protection, which civil liberties advocates say could lead to new potentially privacy-invading programs, is just the first of three biometric experiments that the feds are getting ready to launch.
The three experiments involve new controversial technologies like iris and face scanner kiosks, which CBP plans to deploy at the Mexican border, and facial recognition software, according to a leaked document obtained by Motherboard.
All three pilots are part of a broader Customs and Border Protection (CBP) program to modernize screenings at American entry and exit ports, including at the highly politicized Mexican border, with the aid of new biometric technologies. The program is known as Apex Air Entry and Exit Re-Engineering (AEER) Project, according to the leaked slides.
These pilot programs have the goal of “identifying and implementing” biometric technologies that can be used at American borders to improve the immigration system as well as US national security, according to the slides.
"The public should take notice. These programs may be coming to a theater near you."
The facial recognition pilot is up and running at Washington Dulles International airport, as first reported as operational by Motherboard, while the other two programs appear to have not been deployed yet. Unlike the facial recognition one, the other two appear to only target foreigners.
The CBP did not respond to Motherboard’s questions regarding these programs. The slides were leaked to Motherboard by Arjun Sethi, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) legislative counsel, who attended a presentation held on March 10 at the CBP headquarters.
The second pilot is called Biometric Exit (BE) Mobile Experiment and has the goal of helping CBP “confirm with certainty that a foreigner traveler has departed the United States.”
As part of this experiment, the slides say that the CBP officers at the Atlanta Hartsfield International airport will use a “handheld device” to record the exit of a foreign national from the US and create a match with the person’s entry records, in order to figure out whether a foreigner has stayed in the US more than he or she was allowed to.
It’s unclear what the device actually does, but according to another person who attended the presentation at the CBP, the device is probably a fingerprint reader.
The third pilot is called Pedestrian Biometric Experiment and it will be deployed at the Otay Mesa border between the United States and Mexico, according to the slides.
This experiment has the goal of testing “the viability of facial and iris image capture” in a land border such as the one in Otay Mesa, and create “an additional layer of security” at the US southern border to “combat national security and public safety threats.”
The CBP will install devices capable of scanning a traveler’s face and iris, replacing existing entry kiosks, the agency explains in the slides. Other gizmos to be deployed include RFID document readers, iris biometric scanners, and facial biometric cameras, according to a sketch of the border station included in the slides.
While both these two programs, as well as the facial recognition one, are just experiments at the moment, privacy advocates warn that there’s a risk of mission creep, and that technologies like those used for these experiments could soon be deployed more widely. Moreover, given the ever-increasing political pressure to secure the border with Mexico, the third program has good chances to be fully implemented.
"The public should take notice,” Sethi, of the ACLU, told Motherboard. “These programs may be coming to a theater near you."