How to Opt-out of Face Recognition at Airports

What is Biometric Exit?

Generally, any foreign national wanting to visit the United States must obtain a visa. A travel visa is “conditional authorization granted by a country to a foreigner, allowing them to enter, remain within, or to leave that country. There are many different kinds of visas. They typically include limits on the duration of the stay, territory within the country they may enter, the dates they may enter, the number of permitted visits or an individual's right to work in the country in question.”

So the key point here is that most foreign nationals have to apply for and receive a visa before they are allowed to enter the United States and the visa is verified and the traveler is photographed when they enter the country. The visa usually allows them to be in the country for a specific time period.

The 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act called for the creation of an automated system to record arrivals and departures of non-U.S. citizens at all air, sea, and land ports of entry. The 2002 Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act, the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, and the Implementing Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act of 2007 all called for the creation of a nationwide biometric entry-exit system, including the creation of exit records for individuals departing the United States. In addition, the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2016 authorized CBP to expend up to $1 billion in certain visa fee surcharges collected and deposited into the recently created 9-11 Response and Biometric Exit Account for biometric entry and exit implementation. Finally, Executive Order 13780, “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States,” required U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to “expedite the completion and implementation of a biometric entry-exit tracking system for in-scope travelers to the United States."

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Summary: Decades ago, we spent a ton of money to develop a biometric entry/exit program for foreign nationals visiting the United States. We got a program that tracks foreign nationals entering the United States but we weren’t tracking when they left because left because that’s hard. Now we are starting to track exits.

Two years ago, airports in the United States started piloting face recognition technology at departure gates as part of the Exit Visa program. The program authorizes airports to collect biometric information on foreign nationals, but not on US citizens (who do not have or need visas to be in the country legally).

Currently, the program is operating in several major airports like John F. Kennedy International and Los Angeles International Airport and through major airlines like JetBlue, Delta, and British Airways.

How to Opt Out of Biometric Exit

If you are a United States citizen you are allowed to opt-out of this system. However, opting-out doesn’t have to be easy or well advertised. The system has already been rolled out at 17 airports and the program will cover 97% of the commercial airports in the United States in the next four years.

To opt out of the system you need to request an “alternative screening” while in line at the gate. Now, the fact that you can opt-out is not posted and if you aren’t paying attention you might be photographed before you realize it, so you have to stay alert and request the alternative screening process before you have been photographed. What is an “alternative screening?” It just means that a person will review your travel documents much the way they do currently.

Why Should You Opt Out?

The government and the airlines pay attention to opinion of their customers. Airlines especially care about the travel experience of their customers which includes their experience with TSA. The airlines have a stronger influence over TSA than do individual travelers. So opting out is one way to communicate disapproval of the system. If you have concerns, it’s important that you tell someone whether it be at the gate in person or via social media. A group called “Fight for the Future” has created a new website that encourages privacy-minded passengers to contact the airlines currently partnering with CBP to roll out facial recognition scanning.