Despite Scanning Millions of Faces, Feds Caught Zero Imposters at Airports Last Year

U.S. Customs and Border Protection scanned more than 23 million people in public places with facial recognition technology in 2020

U.S. Customs and Border Protection scanned more than 23 million people with facial recognition technology at airports, seaports, and pedestrian crossings in 2020, the agency recently revealed in its annual report on trade and travel.

The agency scanned four million more people than in 2019. The report indicates that the system caught no imposters traveling through airports last year and fewer than 100 new pedestrian imposters.

Since the agency started public tracking statistics in 2018, it has only caught seven imposters trying to enter the United States through airports, and 285 attempting to do so over land crossings. These facial recognition scans are the result of CBP partnerships with more than 30 points of entry to the U.S.

The rollout of facial recognition at U.S. borders has its roots in a 1996 congressional mandate that the attorney general develop a system to track the entry and exit of foreign citizens to the U.S. In 2001, the PATRIOT Act expanded this entry/exit system, adding a requirement that this tracking be done by biometrics, meaning through fingerprint, iris, or facial recognition. The CBP subsequently took over these efforts and, in 2013, put a plan in motion to use facial recognition.

CBP started releasing data on its facial recognition rollout in 2019. It revealed that in 2018, 8.3 million people were scanned at borders. However, the program’s implementation has been met with skepticism from the Government Accountability Office (GAO). In late 2020, the oversight organization lambasted CBP over lackluster accuracy audits, poor signage notifying the public the technology is being used, and little information offered to the public on how its systems worked.

GAO said that even though commercial airline partners had used facial recognition since 2017 and cruise lines had used the technology since 2018, CBP didn’t audit the technology’s efficacy until March 2020. Further audits are now on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic, according to the GAO.

Security and accuracy audits of these systems are crucial. In 2019, a CBP subcontractor downloaded 184,000 facial recognition images, some of which were leaked on the dark web.

“CBP did not adequately safeguard sensitive data on an unencrypted device used during its facial recognition technology pilot,” a report from the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general said.

Facial recognition has repeatedly been shown to perform worse on women and people with darker skin tones. However, CBP says its facial recognition shows “virtually no measurable differential performance in results based on demographic factors.” It has not released any data to corroborate those claims.

The CBP report reiterates the agency’s confidence in facial recognition programs. The agency is now saying that its facial recognition is more necessary than ever due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“CBP’s biometric facial comparison technology can have a direct, positive impact on the travel industry’s ability to resume operations following the pandemic, as a key component to recovery is restoring consumer confidence that travel is safe,” the agency said in the report.

Senior Writer at OneZero covering surveillance, facial recognition, DIY tech, and artificial intelligence. Previously: Qz, PopSci, and NYTimes.