CBP Facial Recognition Program Has Gathered 50 Million Face Photos, Identified Fewer Than 300 Imposters

from the more-buck-than-bang-at-this-point dept

The CBP and DHS have released their annual report [PDF] covering trade and travel. It touts the agencies' successes in these areas but raises some questions about the use of facial recognition tech to make the nation safer.

Dave Gershgorn, writing for One Zero, points out the system the DHS and CBP claim is essential to national security isn't doing much to secure the nation. And it's not for a lack of input data.

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.

There are two ways of looking at this -- neither of which justify the DHS's aggressive expansion of biometric collection at airports, border crossings, and any other place travelers might be found.

This low number of imposters recognized could indicate the system is flawed -- incapable of accurately doing the job it's supposed to do: recognize faces. This is a problem inherent to every facial recognition algorithm being used anywhere. The tech tends to be most accurate when presented with white male faces. Everyone else is subjected to higher risk of being misidentified, which can lead to false arrests or being prevented from traveling.

But it could also indicate imposters aren't all that common -- certainly not common enough to justify the erection of a mass surveillance system that gives travelers the option of giving up their biometric info or not traveling.

The CBP only began tracking and publishing stats in 2018, trailing its biometric rollout by a couple of years. Since 2018, the government has caught less than 300 imposters. Over that same time period, it performed 50 million face scans. That's a pretty terrible return on investment. But that's not how the CBP portrays this in its report:

Biometrics have proven an effective tool to combat the use of stolen and fraudulent travel and identity documents. Since the program’s inception, in 2018, CBP officers at U.S. airports have successfully intercepted seven impostors who were denied admission to the United States and identified 285 imposters on arrival in the land pedestrian environment.

I guess it all depends on what your definition of "effective" is. The CBP's expansive definition suggests literally any number above zero justifies the cost of the tech and its attendant surveillance creep.

Of course, if the real purpose of the program is to create a massive database of facial photos and personal information, it's been a tremendous success. And if that's all the CBP and DHS expect from it, it will continue to perform this task with minimal interruption.

But travelers and taxpayers should expect more from the DHS and its agencies. Spending millions to deal with a minor problem by deploying tech that remains unproven shouldn't be considered acceptable. Neither is the alternative: a system that rarely recognizes imposters, allowing government agencies to assume it's less of a problem than it might actually be.

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Filed Under: cbp, dhs, facial recognition, national security, privacy, security theater, surveillance


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  • identicon
    Professor Ronny, 17 Feb 2021 @ 11:32am

    Two Possibilities

    This low number of imposters recognized could indicate the system is flawed -- incapable of accurately doing the job it's supposed to do: recognize faces...

    But it could also indicate imposters aren't all that common...

    These are both possible and are the most likely option by far. However, it is also technically possible that imposters have stopped coming because of the technology.

    Highly unlike, but a third possibility.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Upstream (profile), 17 Feb 2021 @ 11:52am

    Key point

    Of course, if the real purpose of the program is to create a massive database of facial photos and personal information, it's been a tremendous success.

    Stated objectives are often wildly different from true objectives. In many cases, particularly when government is involved, they can be diametrically opposed. Just as we should always look at what politicians do rather than what they say, we should also always look closely at what any given program actually accomplishes, versus what we are told the program is supposed to accomplish.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    ECA (profile), 17 Feb 2021 @ 11:53am

    Why not

    Was there a reason in them being Imposters?
    Why they would try to come into the USA?
    Any comments on that??

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    BernardoVerda (profile), 17 Feb 2021 @ 3:06pm

    Yes, it was implied, but...

    ... this article leaves at least one important question not quite addressed:

    CPB claims to have identified 300 imposters;
    Was the use of computerized facial recognition technology actually the means by which these imposters were identified and caught?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Uriel-238 (profile), 18 Feb 2021 @ 1:46am

    Considering the US' security aptitude lately...

    ...something tells me this massive facial recognition array is accessible to China, Russia, private black hats and anyone else who wants to find out who cut them off on the freeway.

    I wonder if CBP's own employees are in that database.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    BG (profile), 18 Feb 2021 @ 6:57am

    Facial Recognition alone or ??

    I'd like to see the breakdown of how much of the stated successes were only possible to catch via facial recognition alone? How many of them would have been detected at a point where documentation was checked, fingerprints scanned, etc.

    I suspect the actual success numbers are probably even lower than what has been stated when the rest of the detection mechanisms are taken into account.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      ECA (profile), 18 Feb 2021 @ 1:12pm

      Re: Facial Recognition alone or ??

      So, you have the idea that they Dont have a list/computer display that can show every persons Passport with a picture of the persons? form both lands, canada and the USA? or any other combination??

      Our gov. is so far behind in tech, its laughable.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 18 Feb 2021 @ 9:45am

    How does this facial recognition work when everyone is wearing a mask?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Uriel-238 (profile), 18 Feb 2021 @ 12:05pm

      "when everyone is wearing a mask"

      Less well.

      Facial recognition software can still analyze partial faces, such as the eyes. Mask and opaque glasses will hide your face even better, and there are shirts and accessories with patterns that confuse face-finding routines.

      Also facial recognition image capture depends sometimes on non-visible light (infrared?) and some hackers have used this as a means to project another face on their own, which fools some facial recognition software.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Random Among Us Fan, 18 Feb 2021 @ 2:27pm

    If CBP has been on the cams all this time and still doesn't know who the imposter is, then CBP is hella sus....

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 18 Feb 2021 @ 8:13pm

    when will the CBP stop lying to us with BS about impostors and tell the truth as to what the real reason for this civil rights violating software is for! it is not just the CBP that wants the CBP to have this tech, it is the rest of the alphabet mafia insisting they have have it. that way when any of the 3 letter mafia's gets band from using it there will be others to fill the gap!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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