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Security & privacy

Traveling in 2021? AI will be watching – and mapping your face

Imagine if you didn’t have to scan your boarding pass to get on a flight. Instead, you just scanned your face. Actually, you don’t have to imagine that — it’s a reality in many American airports.

It’s part of U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s biometric tech, which uses physiological details to ID you. For example, you can give your fingerprints — or a detailed map of your face. It’s nothing new: In fact, your face might already be part of facial recognition databases shared worldwide.

Good news: Right now, you can opt out of scanning your face at the airport. But this might change soon, thanks to a new move by the CBP. The agency recently filed to expand its authority to use facial recognition at airports.

What does that mean for you? 

Simply put, officials want to strengthen security measures. Right now, only a handful of travel ports use the biometric exit program. That’s because officials wanted to see how well the program worked before expanding it. 

As it turns out, the CBP’s pleased with the results. That’s why it asked the Federal Register for permission to broaden its project’s scope. Now, it wants to use the biometric exits program in all air and land ports. 

If this gets approved, the CBP can collect the facial images from any non-citizen entering the country.

Look through the filing and you’ll find some fascinating stuff. For example, CBP wants to create “faceprints.” Those are more than simple digital scans: they identify your unique facial structure. Faceprints note every plane of your face, from your cheekbones to your chin.

Once that faceprint is taken, CBP wants to keep it for a long time. If you’re a citizen or permanent resident, the agency will keep your faceprint for 15 years. That jumps to 75 years for undocumented residents.

Here’s another takeaway. In its filing, CBP said it wants to shift the biometric exit program’s focus entirely. That means you might have to say goodbye to alternate methods like fingerprinting when you travel. Of course, you can still use it to open your phone, so it’s not a permanent farewell.

But this also means you may have to scan your face whenever you leave the country or return after a trip.

Travel bookings for 2021 are skyrocketing

Due to COVID-19, the travel industry took a huge hit this year. Thanks to the new vaccines, travel companies are seeing a spike in travel bookings, according to the Washington Post.

It makes sense: Americans made 2.3 billion in-person trips in 2019, the U.S. Travel Association says. That came up to a total travel-related output of $2.6 trillion.

Suffice it to say, businesses are itching to reopen. And after months of cabin fever, Americans are ready to hit the road or sky — anywhere that isn’t home.

That’s why this CBP filing is such a big deal. If you travel by land, sea or air, you’d be under facial surveillance. If the filing is approved, it could change society, the American Civil Liberties Union says.

The ACLU filed an objection to CBP’s proposed expansion. “The face surveillance…would pose grave risks to privacy and civil liberties—including harms from law enforcement agencies in the United States and foreign government agencies with which faceprints are shared,” the ACLU’s filing says.

“CBP’s collection of faceprints could enable systematic surveillance by other government agencies and foreign governments,” it added.

Whatever your opinion is, the fact is that facial recognition tech is here to stay. In fact, for over two decades, police forces have used facial recognition tech. But the programs are far from flawless. 

Could this lead to false arrests?

Civil rights groups think so. They point to a case back in January, when Detroit police ran security video of a robbery through facial recognition software. 

A hit came back: It was 42-year-old Robert Julian-Borchak Williams, the program said. So police called his office and told him he was under arrest. At first, he thought it was a prank. Then, police pulled up to his driveway and arrested him in front of his family. 

They detained him for 30 hours before he could finally leave. It’s the first time an American’s been wrongfully arrested based on a faulty facial recognition match, according to the New York Times.

So far, the Federal Register hasn’t made its decision. Stay tuned, though — its decision could impact the future of facial recognition tech in America.

In the meantime, you may want to learn more about the ways this tech is already affecting your life. Tap or click here to see which government agencies are using your face. 

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