U.S. Customs and Border Protection screens thousands of travelers per day entering the United States. (Photo: AirlineGeeks

Homeland Security Withdraws Proposal for Compulsory Facial Recognition at Airports for U.S. Citizens

The use of biometric information such as fingerprints and facial recognition in the airline industry has become more familiar to passengers around the world over recent years. In addition to such procedures as biometric boarding,, the ‘capturing’ of biometric information on passports and visa applications is becoming commonplace and touted as a more efficient way to process arriving passengers through border control systems.

At some terminals at London’s Heathrow Airport, electronic gates have been available for passengers over 12 years of age who are citizens of the U.K. and the European Economic Area. From May of this year, passport holders from Australia, Canada, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Switzerland and the U.S. have also been allowed to voluntarily use the service eliminating the need to fill out a U.K. arrival card. The e-gates use facial recognition to match biometric data in the passenger’s passport allowing faster access through immigration procedures.

While this means of speeding up arrival formalities for passengers has been embraced in some countries, a plan by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to expand the current process of screening foreign nationals arriving into some American airports to mandate that U.S. citizens also comply was met with resistance. Though American citizens can currently opt-out, The Washington Post reported this week that the expansion of the process to mandate U.S. citizens comply with facial scanning when they arrive and depart the country would be challenged.

A rule listed on the site of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, titled ‘Collection of Biometric Data From U.S. Citizens Upon Entry To and Departure From the United States’, states: “The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is required by statute to develop and implement a biometric entry-exit data system. To facilitate the implementation of a seamless biometric entry-exit system that uses facial recognition and to help prevent persons attempting to fraudulently use U.S. travel documents and identify criminals and known or suspected terrorists, DHS is proposing to amend the regulations to provide that all travelers, including U.S. citizens, may be required to be photographed upon entry and/or departure.”

Though the proposal had yet to be officially published, that was scheduled for July, after which it would have been subject to a public comment period there was immediate opposition. Senators Edward J. Markey and Mike Lee who have had concerns for a number of years with how the DHS is using facial recognition technology again voiced their opposition to DHS proposals. Senator Markey has called for ‘enforceable rules protecting travelers’ privacy’ and issued a statement on Tuesday condemning the proposal.

“The Department of Homeland Security should immediately withdraw plans to force Americans to undergo facial recognition and hand over their biometric information,” said Senator Markey. “This proposal would amount to disturbing government coercion, and as the recent data breach at Customs and Border Protection shows, Homeland Security cannot be trusted to keep our information safe and secure. I will soon introduce legislation to ensure that innocent American citizens are never forced to hand over their facial recognition information.”

The breach that Markey refers to related to the theft of over 100.000 traveler and vehicle images from a subcontractor of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection. On Thursday the DHS withdrew the resolution to expand biometric screening of U.S. citizens citing discussions with Congress and privacy experts.

NOTE: This article has been updated to reflect the Department of Homeland Security’s decision on Thursday to withdraw the proposal to expand facial recognition scanning for U.S. citizens.

John Flett
John Flett
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