Air travelers taking international flights from US airports will soon have to submit to a face scan before boarding their plane.
The security measure is part of a new Department of Homeland Security (DHS) program that was set in motion in the summer of 2016 when the DHS partnered with Delta and JetBlue — two airline companies — to introduce facial recognition systems for international flights.
Travelers are supposed to sit in front of a camera which scans their face and takes their picture right before boarding their plane. The system will compare the face scan to a passenger's passport or visa paper photos, and see if they fit the identity of the person recorded on each flight manifest.
Delta and JetBlue say the program will speed up boarding checks. Copies of the photos are also sent to a Customs and Border Protection (CBP) system that detects people with fake passports or who overstay their visas.
Trials for this new face scanning system have taken place since 2016 at airports in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Houston, New York, and Washington, for selected international flights.
The DHS, through the CBP, was already collecting fingerprints and photos from foreigners when entering the US since 2004.
Congress and the Obama administration approved to expand this biometrics data collection program to include travelers both entering and leaving the US, via air, sea, and land.
Congress, and later President Trump through an executive order, specified that this program should not include US citizens. Despite this, the trials conducted by the DHS since June 2016 have scanned both US and non-US travelers.
According to a DHS report on the program's progress, the agency is aware that they are scanning faces of US citizens, in contradiction with Congress and President Trump's executive order.
"If a US citizen requests not to participate in the TVS [Traveler Verification Service], his or her identity may be verified by an available CBP Officer via manual processing," the agency wrote in a report from May, indirectly admitting that US citizens are mass-scanned regardless.
Criticism aimed at the program from US citizens and privacy groups did not have an impact on the DHS program, who offered an impudent response, telling people not to travel if they don't want their faces scanned.
"The only way for an individual to ensure he or she is not subject to collection of biometric information when traveling internationally is to refrain from traveling," the DHS said.
The facial scanning system is scheduled to launch in 2018 with more airline partners. The system will also expand to ports and land border checkpoints. DHS said that photos of scanned faces are automatically deleted from their system after 14 days.
Government agencies have come under fire in the past for collecting face scans and ID photos from US citizens without authorization. The FBI has used one of these shoddy databases to identify criminals, sometimes arresting the wrong person.
Facial scans are not considered one of the most accurate biometrics identification methods, and many argue that misidentifications might ruin some people's travel plans, or might get some of them on the US' no-entry list.