By Jonny Lupsha, Current Events Writer
Twenty of the top American airports will soon use facial recognition technology to increase security, government documents released to BuzzFeed said. U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security will implement the Biometrics Entry-Exit Program by 2021. Learn more about biometrics and the potential benefits—and risks—they bring.
The nonprofit organization Electronic Privacy Information Center recently utilized the Freedom of Information Act to request documents related to the Biometrics Entry-Exit Program, which it then released exclusively to BuzzFeed last week. The documents specifically state there are no limits to how airports can use facial recognition technology, raising concerns from privacy advocates. Biometrics goes far beyond facial scanning, and as a whole it comes with many pros and cons.
Facial Scanning – Uses for and Common Methods of Biometrics
“Biometrics can be used in two distinct ways—for verification or for identification,” said Professor Paul Rosenzweig, Professorial Lecturer in Law at The George Washington University Law School. “When a biometric system is used to verify whether a person is who he or she claims to be, that verification is frequently referred to as one-to-one matching. Identification, by contrast, is known as one-to-many matching.” In other words, verification has a matching subject in mind from the outset and one-to-one matching is simply confirming someone’s claims of identity. Identification searches an entire archive looking for any match to the initial biometric sample.
There are four common methods of biometrics—one of which has been used by police for over a century. The first and oldest method is fingerprinting. Police used to employ experts to match fingerprints visually with those on record. Currently, fingerprints are scanned into computers and made into templates. “These templates are saved in a database for future comparisons using optical, silicon, or ultrasound scanners,” Professor Rosenzweig said.
The second common biometric technology is iris recognition. According to Professor Rosenzweig, the iris—the colored part of the eye—has over 260 distinctive characteristics. Iris templates are made by scanning the eye and using approximately 170 of those characteristics.
The third method is facial recognition, which is the form of biometrics being placed in American airports. Facial recognition measures multiple features simultaneously, like the width or length of the nose, the size and shape of the mouth, and many others, to test a person’s face—or a photograph of it—against a template in a database. Some smartphones already use facial recognition technology in order to unlock. The BuzzFeed article that details the government documents states that the U.S. Customs and Border Protection plans to use facial recognition “for as many as 30 international flights across more than a dozen U.S. airports per day.”
Voice recognition is the fourth method of biometrics. Used for both verification and identification, voice recognition takes advantages of vocal patterns caused by physical traits—like the shape of the mouth or vocal cords—and by behavioral traits—like accents—to differentiate between people.
Risks and Benefits of Biometrics
Many forms of biometrics are relatively inexpensive, safe, and non-invasive. They also have proven effective. The United Arab Emirates began using iris recognition at its airports to screen everyone coming into the country for anyone banned from entering. “After the first 10 years, the use of iris scans has, they say, prevented the re-entry of 347,019 deportees,” Professor Rosenzweig said. “A statistical analysis of the program suggests that the likelihood of a false positive […] is less than one in 80 billion.”
Perhaps the clearest concern today is the invasion of privacy. “Some of the fears surrounding biometric information include that it will be gathered without permission, knowledge, or clearly defined reasons, or used for a multitude of purposes other than the one for which it was initially gathered,” Professor Rosenzweig said. “There are also concerns about tracking and profiling. Both of these would effectively destroy a person’s anonymity.”
If biometric information becomes commonplace in the future of law enforcement, a number of ethics and liability issues will need to be sorted through. Oversight, data retention, privacy, and accuracy will have to be carefully considered when using any biometrics information. With many American airports using facial recognition by year’s end, those answers may have to come soon.
Professor Paul Rosenzweig contributed to this article.
Professor Rosenzweig is a Professorial Lecturer in Law at The George Washington University Law School. He earned his J.D. from the University of Chicago Law School.