It sounds like something out of a dystopian novel, but it’s the modern U.S. surveillance state, and it’s real.
In November 2016, a week after the presidential election, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) surreptitiously photographed around 1,400 drivers as they crossed the border from Nogales, Arizona into Mexico. The following January, they captured images of another 1,400 drivers at the Anzalduas, Texas border. The government used these images to develop an experimental face-recognition technology designed to track people entering and leaving the country. The public was not informed.
Based on that pilot program, CBP will deploy this Vehicle Face System (VFS) in August at Anzalduas. It is scheduled to scan the faces of drivers and passengers entering or leaving the country for a year.
Authorities will compare the images with passports, visas and other documents stored in “government holdings,” CBP spokeswoman Jennifer Gabris told The Guardian.
The goal is to answer the question, ‘How accurately can the cameras capture images of people inside vehicles and match them to government-held records?’
As if that question weren’t scary enough, the answer – when it comes to typical face scanners – is even scarier. Facial recognition technology is really bad at recognizing faces.
During an incident in Wales in which police scanned a crowd of 170,000 people, the facial recognition technology was found to have a 92 percent false positive rate. That means 92 percent of the people they identified as criminals were not criminals.
It gets worse. Facial recognition technology works best when identifying white men. It is less accurate with women and anyone with darker skin.
Accurate face recognition is even more challenging when cameras are looking through car windshields, which are typically patterned with moving reflections. CBP has spent years trying to combat this issue.
It is truly frightening to contemplate how many people could be falsely accused of smuggling or other immigration crimes because they were misidentified by a camera.
But fasten your seat belts, because it gets even worse.
This program is part of a wider surveillance rollout called the Biometric Entry/Exit program. As part of this program, CBP is currently piloting facial recognition technology at eight airports: Atlanta, Miami, Las Vegas, Washington Dulles, Chicago O’Hare, New York’s JFK, and two Houston airports.
The Biometric Entry/Exit program was designed to verify visa holders’ identities in airports. But CBP has indicated that it could also begin scanning the faces of U.S. citizens as they reenter the country or pass through TSA checkpoints. CBP says this is part of a plan “to enhance the traveler experience” through biometrics.
Civil liberties groups are, unsurprisingly, deeply concerned about these developments.
“This is a way for the federal government to track people, monitoring who goes where and what they do there,” Mitra Ebadolahi, a staff attorney with the ACLU, told The Verge. “In a free society, we should all be able to safely live our lives without being watched and targeted by the federal government.”