June 14 (UPI) -- House Democrats questioned the use of facial recognition technology on U.S. citizens in airports Friday, sending a letter to the Department of Homeland Security expressing concern about the practice.
The U.S. Customs and Border Protection's use of facial recognition is supposed to be limited to collecting biometric data on foreign nationals. The group of more than 20 House Democrats wrote a letter to Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Kevin McAleenan saying he has partnered with the Transportation Security Administration and U.S. airlines to use the technology on U.S. citizens, something DHS doesn't have a congressional mandate to do.
"[W]e were stunned to learn of reports that the agency has partnered with the Transportation Security Administration and commercial airlines to use facial recognition technology on American citizens," the Democrats said in the letter.
The letter was led by Reps. Susan Wild, D-Penn., Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo. and Yvette Clarke, D-N.Y. It also includes Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich. and Ilhan Omar, D-Minn.
The digital rights group Fight for the Future launched a campaign and a website to raise awareness of facial recognition technology at airports. The group called for a boycott of airlines that use facial recognition technology.
"Ubiquitous facial recognition technologies create a world where there is literally no privacy," the group said on its website. "Governments, corporations and law enforcement can track your every move without your consent. Automated and detailed profiles about you, about everywhere you go and about everyone you associate with could be housed in databases with little to no security measures."
The Orlando International Airport added facial recognition for all passengers arriving or departing on international flights last year.
The Democrats call for the DHS to allow for public input and establish privacy safeguards.
"We write to express concerns about reports that the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CPB) is using facial recognition technology to scan American citizens under the Biometric Exit Program," the Democrats said in the letter. "This is an unprecedented and unauthorized expansion of the agency's authority."
The CBP said the facial recognition is voluntary for U.S. citizens or exempt aliens. If they don't want to participate in the biometric collection they should notify and a CBP officer or airline representative to seek an alternative means to verify their identity.
"This guidance comes too little, too late for most travelers," the Democrats said. "The random nature of this pilot program does not allow travelers the requisite advanced notice to make an informed decision on their willingness to participate."
The Democrats who signed the letter want to know where CBP gets this authority to use it on U.S. citizens, what kind of advanced notice is required, what kind of contract do they have with airports and airlines and how CBP purges photos taken in the Traveler Verification Service.
No Republicans signed the letter but there is a bipartisan effort to crack down on the use of facial recognition cameras in use by the FBI and CBP. A House oversight committee had both Republicans and Democrats raising concerns about the issue.
Making matters worse, photos of U.S. travelers and their license plates were recently stolen from a CBP database.
Lawmakers want to know what CBP is doing with photos of U.S. citizens.