Facial Recognition Technology: CBP Traveler Identity Verification and Privacy Efforts

Fast facts

US Customs and Border Protection uses facial recognition technology for identity verification at some border crossings. As of July 2022, CBP has deployed 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.

Our previous recommendations included that CBP 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 the Port Canaveral Seaport

Main points

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-exit records for foreign nationals as part of its biometric entry program – departure As of July 2022, CBP has deployed FRTs at 32 airports to biometrically verify the identity of travelers when they depart the United States (air exit) and at all airports for arrivals of international travelers.

Facial recognition technology is used at the airport

Facial recognition technology is used at the airport

In September 2020, the GAO reported that CBP had taken steps to incorporate privacy principles into its program, such as prohibiting airlines from storing or using photographs of travelers for their own purposes. However, CBP did not always provide travelers with information on FRT locations. In addition, CBP’s privacy notices also contained limited information on how travelers could request a waiver of FRT screening and were not always published. Since that time, CBP has ensured that the privacy notices contain complete information and is taking steps to ensure that the signage remains available, but must complete its efforts to distribute the updated signage in locations where the FRT is used. In addition, CBP requires its commercial partners, such as airlines, to comply with CBP’s privacy requirements and may audit partners to assess compliance. As of May 2020, CBP had inspected only one partner airline and had no plans to inspect all partners. In July 2022, CBP reported that it had conducted five5 evaluations of its airline partners and three additional evaluations are currently underway. These are positive steps that will help ensure the protection of passenger information. However, CBP must also review other partners who have access to personally identifiable information, including partners in other travel environments, suppliers and contractors, and contractors and partners at land and sea ports of entry.

CBP evaluated the accuracy and performance of FRT air outlet capabilities through operational testing. Testing found that Air Exit exceeded the target accuracy but fell short of the target performance to capture 97 percent of travelers’ photos because airlines did not always photograph all travelers. As of July 2022, CBP officials say they plan to eliminate this requirement, eliminating the purpose of photography, because airline participation in the program is voluntary and CBP does not have personnel to monitor the photography process at every exit.

Why did the GAO conduct this study?

Within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), CBP is responsible for the dual mission of facilitating lawful travel and securing US borders. In response to federal laws requiring DHS to implement a system of biographical and biometric data for foreign nationals entering and leaving the United States. In response, CBP requires the FRT to verify the traveler’s identity in lieu of visual verification of identification documents.

This statement addresses the extent to which CBP (1) incorporated privacy principles into and (2) evaluated the accuracy and effectiveness of its use of the FRT. This statement is based on the September 2020 report (GAO-20-568), along with an update as of July 2022 of actions taken by CBP to address previous GAO recommendations. For this report, GAO visited the site to observe CBP’s use of the FRT; reviewed program documents; and interviewed DHS officials.

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