Customs to Defend Face Recognition After 100,000 Photos Exposed

  • TSA, Secret Service, CBP expected to appear at July 10 hearing
  • Exposed photos unrelated to entry/exit program, agency says

A senior Customs and Border Protection official will defend the agency’s use of facial recognition technology to lawmakers looking into a data breach earlier this year that left pictures of about 100,000 travelers’ faces exposed to hackers.

John Wagner, deputy executive assistant commissioner at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, said he’ll lay out next month the agency’s authority to check the biometric information of U.S. citizens and try to clear up what he called misinformation about the breach, which didn’t involve its facial recognition systems.

“In our current authorities, you have to present a passport to establish your citizenship and your identity,” he said. “We’re just building a convenient way to do that.”

(Scott McIntyre/Bloomberg)
A top Customs and Border Protection official says the agency currently has the legal authority to use biometrics in its entry/exit program, a stance with which some lawmakers disagree.

The agency believes its authority to capture Americans’ biometric information is grounded in laws that stipulate travelers must identify themselves through a passport or alternative documents, Wagner said in an interview with Bloomberg Government.

The border agency has been pressed by lawmakers, including more than 20 House Democrats in a letter last week, saying its use of the technology on U.S. citizens as part of its Bioemetric Exit Program at border entry points is an “unprecedented and unauthorized expansion” of the agency’s authority.

Currently, U.S. citizens can opt out of the scans.

July 10 Hearing

A House Homeland Security Committee hearing on the Department of Homeland Security’s use of biometrics is scheduled for July 10, he said. Details have yet to be announced, but a committee aide confirmed plans for Transportation Security Administration and Secret Service to testify in addition to Customs.

Wagner said his testimony will likely include information about privacy and rulemaking efforts for facial recognition technology use at the agency, in addition to the discussion of its biometrics authority.

Lawmakers from both parties have stepped up criticism of facial recognition technology in recent months, citing potential privacy violations and inaccuracies, especially when used on women and people of color. Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) announced the plan for a biometrics hearing June 10 following revelations that a contractor for the border agency had been breached in a cyber attack, exposing approximately 100,000 photos of travelers’ face photos. License plate photos were also breached.

“We must ensure we are not expanding the use of biometrics at the expense of the privacy of the American public,” Thompson said in a June 10 statement.

Contractor to Blame?

Wagner wants to clarify that the photos taken of travelers passing through a handful of lanes at a land vehicle crossing point weren’t being used for the agency’s facial recognition programs, as some media reports have said. The agency was conducting a pilot program at a few lanes to test its ability to capture readable, properly lit face and license plate photos. That technology could be used for a facial recognition pilot program eventually, he said.

The agency has said it is investigating the contractor, which had been prohibited from moving the data to its own computer servers, where it was then stolen.

Wagner said the agency, which is already working on two rulemakings to regulate facial recognition use, is also in the process of developing more as the technology programs advance. He also pointed to the agency’s privacy impact assessment to show it is complying with federal laws. For months, lawmakers like Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Ed Markey(D-Mass.) have called for new rules so the traveling public can weigh in with concerns.

“Depending on what the final product looks like and how encompassing it is, we’ll have to continue to do rulemakings,” Wagner said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Michaela Ross in Washington at mross@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at phendrie@bgov.com; Jonathan Nicholson at jnicholson@bgov.com; Robin Meszoly at rmeszoly@bgov.com