December 21, 2017 / 4:35 PM / a year ago

U.S. Senators seek to stop expansion of airport facial scans

WASHINGTON, Dec 21 (Reuters) - U.S. Senators from both major parties on Thursday urged federal authorities to halt planned expansion of a $1 billion airport facial scanning program, saying the technology used to vet travelers on departing international flights at nine airports may not be not accurate enough.

Senators Mike Lee, a Utah Republican and Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, wrote U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen raising concerns that too many travelers would be inconvenienced by faulty scan results and questioned why Americans are being subjected to the screens.

“We request that DHS stop the expansion of this program and provide Congress with its explicit statutory authority to use and expand a biometric exit program on U.S. citizens,” the senators wrote.

They cited a report released Thursday by Georgetown University Law School’s Center on Privacy & Technology that found DHS is conducting the scans “without basic legal and technical safeguards – or any meaningful justification of its billion-dollar cost.”

Congress in 2016 authorized spending up to $1 billion over 10 years on biometric exit detection technology. Congress has approved the use of the program for non-U.S. citizens but never authorized it for Americans.

DHS has said it wants to have some form of biometric exit face scanning at all the largest U.S. international airports in 2018.

Airports using the system include Boston, Las Vegas, Miami, New York’s John F. Kennedy, Washington Dulles, both Houston airports, Chicago O’Hare and Atlanta.

The senators want DHS to provide data that the program will not unduly burden travelers. DHS said previously its goal is a 96 percent “true accept rate,” meaning the technology can positively identify 96 percent of the faces it scans.

The senators said this meant “there would still be a false denial for one in 25 travelers. Further there is evidence that certain face scans exhibit different error rate depending on the race or gender of the person being scanned.”

DHS has said travelers who cannot be verified are escorted to another area where Customs and Border Patrol uses alternative methods to attempt to verify their identity. A DHS spokesman declined to immediately comment Thursday.

The Georgetown Law report also noted that DHS has not established any rules governing the program.

“It’s as if DHS has hired a billion-dollar bouncer to check IDs but never checked how good he is at spotting a fake,” said Laura Moy, deputy director of the center and co-author of the report. “They also don’t know if he’s biased against certain groups of people.”

The senators said DHS also needed safeguards to ensure facial data is not shared with other U.S. agencies. (Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by David Gregorio)

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