Facial Recognition Technology: CBP Traveler Identity Verification and Efforts to Address Privacy Concerns

Facial Recognition Technology: CBP Traveler Identity Verification and Efforts to Address Privacy Concerns

Fast facts

US Customs and Border Protection uses facial recognition technology for identity checks at some border locations. in 2022 July. CBP has implemented this technology at 32 airports for travelers departing the United States and at all airports for travelers entering the country.

We testified that CBP’s privacy signs informing the public of the use of this technology were not always current or available where the technology was used.

Previous guidance has directed CBP to ensure that its privacy notices are complete and accessible in locations where this technology is used.

An example of the cameras and screens used for facial recognition at Port Canaveral

Facial recognition tag on a pole in a roped off area with a camera in the background


What the GAO found

US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has made progress in testing and deploying facial recognition technology (FRT) at air, sea and land ports of entry to create entry and exit records for foreign nationals under its biometric entry and exit program. in 2022 July. CBP has deployed FRTs at 32 airports to biometrically authenticate travelers as they depart the United States (air exit) and at all airports where international travelers arrive.

The airport uses facial recognition technology

The airport uses facial recognition technology

in 2020 September. The GAO reported that CBP has taken steps to incorporate privacy principles into its program, such as prohibiting airlines from storing or using travelers’ photos for their own purposes. However, CBP has consistently failed to provide travelers with information about FRT locations. In addition, CBP’s privacy notices provided limited information on how travelers could request to waive FRT screening, and they were not always posted. Since then, CBP has ensured that privacy notices include all information and is taking steps to ensure that signs are more consistent, but must make every effort to distribute updated signs in areas where FRT is used. In addition, CBP requires its commercial partners, such as airlines, to comply with CBP’s privacy requirements, and partners may conduct audits to assess compliance. in 2020 May. CBP audited only one airline partner and had no plan to ensure that all partners were audited. in 2022 July. CBP said it has completed 55 assessments of its air partners and is conducting three additional assessments. These are positive steps to help ensure that air travelers’ information is protected. However, CBP should also screen other partners who have access to personally identifiable information, including those in other travel environments, vendors and contractors, and contractors and partners at land and sea ports of entry.

CBP has evaluated the accuracy and performance of air exit FRT capabilities through operational testing. Tests showed that Air Exit exceeded accuracy goals but fell short of the performance goal of capturing 97 percent of travelers’ photos because airlines were not consistently taking photos of all travelers. From 2022 July. CBP officials say they plan to eliminate the requirement to eliminate the purpose of photo capture because airline participation in the program is voluntary and CBP does not have staff to monitor the photo capture process at each gate.

Why did the GAO conduct this study?

Within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), CBP is tasked with the dual mission of facilitating legal travel and securing U.S. borders. In response to federal law requiring DHS to implement a system of biographical and biometric data for foreign nationals entering and leaving the United States, CBP used FRT to verify a traveler’s identity instead of visually inspecting travel identification documents.

This statement discusses the extent to which CBP (1) incorporated privacy principles and (2) evaluated the accuracy and effectiveness of FRT use. This statement is based on the 2020 September. report (GAO-20-568) and 2022 July. updated actions taken by CBP to address previous GAO recommendations. As a result of this report, GAO conducted site visits to observe CBP’s use of the FRT; reviewed program documents; and interviewed DHS officials.

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