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U.S. Airports Scanning Americans' Faces

By William Vogeler, Esq. on July 14, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

If you have flown out of the country from New York City recently, the government scanned your face and stored it for law enforcement.

The same is true for anyone who has flown out of airports in Boston, Chicago, Houston, Atlanta, and Washington, D.C. It is a pilot program of the Department of Homeland Security, and the authorities are not done.

According to news reports, all foreign-bound Americans will be subject to facial recognition scans if the Trump Administration gets its way. Or as privacy advocates say, welcome to 1984.

Only Way to Fly

The DHS is expanding the program based on a 2004 biometric tracking law that was aimed at foreigners. Assessing privacy concerns, the agency said the "only way for an individual to ensure he or she is not subject to collection of biometric information when traveling internationally is to refrain from traveling."

Harrison Rudolph, a Georgetown legal fellow, said Americans expect that security officials will scan their luggage.

"What they don't expect is their face is going to be scanned," he told Ars Technica. "This is an expansion of a program that was never authorized for U.S. citizens."

Congress approved facial scans of departing travelers originally to keep better track of people who overstayed their Visas. Under 8 U.S. Code § 1365b, Congress found that a biometric "entry and exit data system" was essential to protect the the United States from potential terrorism.

Citizens Not Exempt

John Wagner, a Customs and Border Protection official, said the agency will not keep scans for more than 14 days, unless it goes "through the appropriate privacy review and approvals." He told a House subcommittee in May that Atlanta's Hartsfield International Airport has been testing the program since last summer.

"U.S. Citizens are not exempted from this process for two reasons: first, it is not feasible to require airlines to have two separate boarding processes for U.S. citizens and non-U.S. citizens, and second, to ensure U.S. citizen travelers are the true bearer of the passport they are presenting for travel," he wrote with Michael Dougherty in a report.

Privacy advocates say the program pushes America toward a Big Brother world where government watches people every where they go. Sen Edward Markey, D-Mass., said citizens should be able to opt out.

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