A cause that both presidential candidates championed during last year’s election campaign was the use of “biometrics” — the use of sophisticated technology to identify individuals — at U.S. airports to help ensure national security. While serving in the Senate, Hillary Clinton co-sponsored legislation calling for the use of such hi-tech tools, and candidate Trump pledged that the issue would be a “top priority” if he won.
He did, of course, and he made good on that pledge. As part of the president’s executive order barring travel to the U.S. from seven Muslim-majority nations, the White House instructed the Department of Homeland Security to escalate the deployment of a multibillion dollar biometric monitoring system to evaluate all visitors crossing U.S. borders. While other parts of the travel ban remain in legal limbo, the DHS is taking steps to follow its executive order instructions regarding biometric monitoring.
Congress first passed a mandate for an automated system back in 1996, but the issue was placed on security agencies’ front burners after the 9/11 Commission endorsed the move. One of the goals of a comprehensive biometrics program would be to identify foreign nationals who overstayed their visas. Two of the September 2001 hijackers had done that.
Based on text records, the DHS estimates that the visas of roughly 500,000 of the nearly 45 million foreign travelers in 2015 have expired.
The biometric system of choice is facial recognition, where sophisticated software can capture details of a person’s face — like the relative locations of eyes, eyebrows and noses — and check the resultant “faceprint” against a database of people whose visas have expired, or who are wanted in criminal or terrorist investigations.
Facial recognition software represents a giant step beyond fingerprints, which the DHS has been collecting since 2004 from foreigners entering the country. And the department hasn’t been able, for logistical reasons, to fingerprint departing visitors.
In a trial at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, the agency successfully tested workstations that captured images to verify passengers’ identities before boarding. Deployment of the technology for exiting passengers on some flights has started as well at Washington Dulles International Airport and Boston Logan Airport.
Voluntary biometric identification is already being used in places like Helsinki and Singapore, as part of the International Air Transport Association’s “One Identity” program. The IATA, which represents 275 airlines, aims to streamline the movement of passengers from their walking into the airport to boarding their planes.
In the U. S., Delta Air Lines has become the first domestic airline to use facial recognition technology, although at this point it is just being used to speed the process of checking baggage at one airport, Minneapolis-St. Paul International.
JetBlue, which serves much of the east coast, is also testing facial recognition technology and biometrics to provide paperless boarding on certain flights. The airlines are working in cooperation with the Transportation Security Administration, and Customs and Border Protection, a division of the DHS.
The expansion of the new surveillance apparatus, however, is predictably alarming privacy and civil liberty advocates.
The thought of one’s facial image being captured and preserved by government agencies understandably disquiets some citizens, like those who shun things like EasyPass and credit cards because they object to their vehicles or purchases being potentially tracked by companies or government.
And others point out that facial recognition software is not foolproof, and that it performed less accurately on women, blacks and adults under 30 in a 2012 study. But current systems will always exist as backups in cases where facial recognition misidentified passengers.
And the technologies will hopefully improve with use and time, as they are repeatedly tweaked to make them work better.
What is more, while photos of nonimmigrant aliens and lawful permanent residents will be kept for up to 15 years, any pictures of U.S. citizens, once their identities have been confirmed and run through databases, will be deleted once a passenger’s flight is completed.
As with so many things in these troubled times, privacy concerns must be balanced by security ones. And accurately identifying passengers who will be boarding planes carrying hundreds of others has, unfortunately, become something that simply must be done. Biometrics represents an advance in accomplishing that task more quickly and efficiently.
But it is not an option for screening people entering or leaving our country by land, across the Mexican or Canadian borders. Nor can it discover the evil designs of “home-grown” terrorists.
In the end, our only true security can be ensured by Divine protection, for which we daven daily.
But taking what steps can be taken in the mundane world, though, making what hishtadlus is reasonable, is certainly part of the broader mandate of a temporal government. And, harnessing biometrics to identify air travelers is certainly an idea worth advancing, cautiously but resolutely.