Proposal to require facial recognition for US citizens at airports dropped

US Customs and Border Protection will rescind its plan.

Laura Hautala Former Senior Writer
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Laura Hautala
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A boarding passenger goes through a biometric facial recognition scanner at Dulles Airport in 2018. CBP says it won't pursue a rule to require US citizens to go through the scans.

Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images

US Customs and Border Protection said Thursday it will drop its plans to require that US citizens go through a biometric face scan when entering or exiting the country. Currently, citizens have the right to opt out of the scans, but a proposed rule indicated the agency was planning to make the program mandatory for all travelers.

The proposed rule was first published in spring 2018 in the Unified Agenda of Regulatory and Deregulatory Actions, a compendium the Executive Office of the President publishes every three months. A rule-making process that allows for public comment typically follows before a proposal can become a new regulation. The CBP's proposal was republished this fall, leading TechCrunch to ask the agency if it was still pursuing the rule.

"There are no current plans to require US citizens to provide photographs upon entry and exit from the United States," the agency said in a statement. "CBP intends to have the planned regulatory action regarding US citizens removed from the unified agenda next time it is published."

The biometric exit program has expanded to at least 17 airports, and CBP plans to have it scan 97 percent of outbound passengers by 2021. The system scans passengers faces just before boarding airplanes, looking for passengers who don't match passport photos and other government documents.

The technology promises to speed international travelers through airports, but privacy advocates have raised concerns. The concerns include high rates of false negatives for women and people of color, and whether there are sufficient checks on how the biometric data can be used by government agencies.

The system keeps photos of US citizens for 12 hours. It keeps non-citizen photos for 14 days, but also shares them with the DHS database called IDENT, which stores photos for 75 years.

In a statement, ACLU policy analyst Jay Stanley said the rule should never have been proposed to begin with. What's more, he said, the technology continues to raise major privacy concerns even if the rule isn't approved.

"The government cannot be trusted with this surveillance technology," Stanley said, "and Congress should put the brakes on its use."