Border officials to expand use of “facial comparison technology”

EL PASO — U.S. Customs and Border Protection is introducing “biometric facial comparison technology” at the El Paso port of entry in an effort to “secure and streamline travel,” the agency stated last week in a news release.

Earlier this month, the agency rolled the technology out on three of the 14 pedestrian lanes on the Paso Del Norte International Crossing between El Paso and Ciudad Juarez. The agency next plans to expand it to the remaining 11 pedestrian lanes, as well as to pedestrian infrastructure at the Bridge of the Americas and the Ysleta Bridge. (In an email to The Big Bend Sentinel, a CBP spokesman said the agency had no immediate plans to start using the technology in Presidio.)

Here’s how it works: When people arrive at the port of entry, they pose for a photo. The technology compares the person’s photo to their passport and/or visa documents in a process that “only takes a few seconds” and is “97 percent accurate,” the agency stated.

The agency says the technology will speed up the entry process. It will also virtually eliminate “the ability of criminals to present other people’s legitimate documents as their own for admission to the United States,” Hector Mancha, CBP director of field operations in El Paso, said in the statement.

The agency also hopes the tools will help “identify persons of interest,” who may be traveling with fake documents. Since 2018, CBP says it’s stopped around 200 imposters with the technology.

U.S. residents can opt out of the process and instead choose a traditional screening procedure. But if they opt into using the technology, their photos will be deleted with 12 hours, CBP stated.

Foreign residents, though, apparently have no such option — and their photos will be stored in a “secure DHS [Department of Homeland Security] system.” Still, CBP says it’s “committed to its privacy obligations” by employing “strong technical security safeguards” and limiting “the amount of personally identifiable information used in the new biometric process.” The agency cited recommendations from the 9/11 Commission in its decision to use the technology.

The American Civil Liberties Union did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the announcement. But the civil rights group has previously expressed skepticism about facial recognition technology, warning that it doesn’t always “require the knowledge, consent, or participation of the subject” and could be used to create “a comprehensive system of identification and tracking.”

In August, the House Oversight Committee considered cutting off funding for the use of new facial recognition technology by federal officials — including by border agents, as Politico reported.

“We don’t want any more money being used…to purchase any new ability to impact or use this technology,” Jim Jordan, a Republican congressman from Ohio, told the outlet.