A U.S. Customs and Border Protection Office of Field Operations officer assist a passenger with ticket scanning and taking biometric facial recognition photos prior to boarding a flight at Houston International Airport on Feb. 12, 2018. (Donna Burton/CBP)

Updated: CBP and Privacy Groups Discuss Biometric Entry-Exit Mandate

U.S. Customs and Border Protection met with leading privacy experts on December 3 to discuss CBP’s implementation of the Congressional biometric entry-exit mandate.

The meeting was the third in an ongoing series of discussions about measures that CBP is taking to protect traveler privacy during the biometric facial comparison process at U.S. ports of entry.

“CBP is committed to keeping the public informed about our use of facial comparison technology,” said John Wagner, Deputy Executive Assistant Commissioner of the CBP Office of Field Operations. “We are implementing a biometric entry-exit system that protects the privacy of all travelers while making travel more secure and convenient.”

CBP’s discussions with Congress, privacy groups and industry stakeholders have already yielded important results for the biometric facial comparison process. Among other measures, CBP has:

  • Reduced the maximum retention period for new photos of U.S. citizens from 14 days to 12 hours;
  • Established stringent business requirements that ensure that airlines and other partners do not retain traveler photos for their own business purposes;
  • Worked with business partners to provide travelers with sufficient privacy notice by enhancing signage and announcements at departure gates; and
  • Published 10 Privacy Impact Assessments to inform the public of how the agency will collect, use and store personally identifiable information as part of the new biometric process.

CBP is using biometric facial comparison technology to facilitate the entry and exit of international travelers while meeting the Congressional mandate to implement a biometric entry-exit system. By incorporating the technology into the existing travel process, CBP is able to enhance security, facilitate lawful travel and protect traveler privacy.

U.S. citizens may opt out of the biometric facial comparison process by notifying a CBP officer or airline representative. Individuals who opt out simply present their passport for visual inspection, as is standard practice at ports of entry today.

To date, CBP and its partners have introduced biometric facial comparison technology at more than 20 U.S. air, sea and land ports of entry. The technology has enabled CBP to interdict more than 200 individuals who illegally attempted to enter the United States by using the genuine travel documents of persons whom they resemble.

CBP is required by law to implement a system to biometrically record foreign nationals’ entry to and departure from the United States. The 9/11 Commission determined that implementing such a system is “an essential investment in our national security.”

Following the meeting, several media reports including one in the Washington Post said CBP was planning to introduce mandatory facial scanning for all travelers arriving in and departing the United States. HSToday reached out to CBP for clarification and a spokesperson told us that there are no current plans for mandatory facial scanning for U.S. citizens.

“Several reports have appeared this week that incorrectly claimed that U.S. Customs and Border Protection will require U.S. citizens to submit photographs when entering and exiting the United States,” CBP said, confirming “there are no current plans to require U.S. citizens to provide photographs upon entry and exit from the United States. CBP intends to have the planned regulatory action regarding U.S. citizens removed from the unified agenda next time it is published.” 

The spokesperson also told us that CBP initially considered including U.S. citizens in its biometric Entry-Exit program “because having separate processes for foreign nationals and U.S. citizens at ports of entry creates logistical and operational challenges that impact security, wait times, and the traveler experience”. Upon consultation with Congress and privacy experts, however, CBP determined that the best course of action is to continue to allow U.S. citizens to voluntarily participate in the biometric Entry-Exit program.

More information about the biometric entry-exit program is available on the CBP website.

This story was updated on December 12.

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Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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