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House Democrats Challenge Homeland Security’s Facial Scan Use

June 14, 2019, 5:56 PM

Twenty-three House Democrats are questioning the Customs and Border Protection agency’s legal authority to use facial recognition technology on U.S. citizens.

The lawmakers, led by Reps. Yvette Clarke (N.Y.) Susan Wild (Penn.), and Emanuel Cleaver (Mo.), June 13 asked Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan in a letter to describe the laws that authorize the CBP to use the technology on American travelers, and how it informs travelers about the program. It also asked DHS “to allow for public input and address transparency, privacy and security concerns before expanding this program.”

The letter comes on the heels of a recent data breach of a CBP subcontractor that compromised license plate and traveler image data. CBP has partnered with commercial airlines and the Transportation Security Administration to pilot use of the technology on U.S. citizens flying out of the country.

“The American people have the right to know how their biometric data—their most personal data—is being used and how it’s being protected. They also need to have all information available to them about how to opt out of this program if they would prefer not to have this data collected in the first place,” Wild said in a statement.

DHS did not immediately response to a request for comment.

CBP is allowed to use facial recognition technology on foreign nationals under a 2018 law, but the agency’s authority to use the technology on U.S. citizens is unclear, the lawmakers said in their letter.

“It is imperative that protocols are in place to ensure there is no infringement on Americans’ civil liberties and that the data collected remains secure,” Cleaver said in a statement.

The lawmakers also asked DHS to detail contracts among airlines, airports, and government agencies and how they share legal liability under the partnerships. There also appear to be few checks on potential misuse of facial recognition data by private companies involved in the program, the lawmakers added.

The TSA and CBP have said travelers can opt-out of the program and have addressed privacy concerns in pages on their websites. But the lawmakers said travelers don’t get enough information or advanced notice to make an informed decision.

Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), the top Democrat on theSenate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Security Subcommittee, sent a letter to McAleenan June 14 demanding answers about the subcontractor’s data breach, calling it “highly troubling.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Anna Kramer in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Keith Perine at