Government privacy watchdog to probe airport facial recognition

The federal government’s privacy watchdog this week said it will examine the use of facial recognition technology at U.S. airports.

The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB), an independent agency tasked with advising the executive branch on privacy matters, announced the probe on Wednesday.

“The aviation-security project will examine how facial recognition and other biometric technologies are used to verify identity at each phase of a journey, from booking to baggage claim,” the PCLOB said in a statement. “The project will consider both operational benefits and privacy and civil liberties concerns arising from the use of biometric technologies in the aviation-security context.”

Civil liberties groups, most prominently the Electronic Privacy Information Center, have been pushing for PCLOB to review and recommend guidelines for the expanding face scanning program being implemented by the government in dozens of airports.

The watchdog’s announcement came two days before the Senate confirmed the nominations of Aditya Bamzai and Travis LeBlanc to the bipartisan agency’s five-member board.

The facial recognition investigation comes as Congress has escalated its probes into the Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) expanding facial recognition technology program, which scans the faces of people entering and exiting the U.S. at airports and certain points along the border.

More than 20 House Democrats in a letter earlier this month pressed the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) over Border Patrol’s use of facial recognition technology on U.S. citizens at airports, raising privacy and civil rights issues over the program.

DHS this year said it plans to use facial recognition technology on almost all departing air passengers within the next four years as part of its Biometric Entry/Exit program, which scans the faces of people coming into and out of the U.S.

CBP has said the program is aimed at identifying people flouting laws about who can come into the country, including those overstaying their visas, and airlines have argued that it makes traveling more efficient.

But critics say the program raises concerns about how the government is using the data it collects and how it will protect that information.

The PCLOB on Wednesday also announced it would begin reviewing the FBI’s process of searching data obtained without a warrant during terrorism investigations. That authority, enabled by Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, allows the U.S. government to collect communications from foreigners located outside of the U.S. without a warrant.

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