Canada’s busiest airports, railways, and maritime ports have partnered with border security agencies and corporations on a proposal to roll out facial recognition for travellers to the United States, with the goal of one day using the controversial technology to identify every traveller crossing the frontier.
The Future Borders Coalition—a cross-border initiative of more than 60 industry groups and transport hubs including Toronto’s Pearson airport, Canadian National railway and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce—aims to use “next-generation biometrics, drone networks and smartphone apps” to process the movement of people and goods between the two countries in the coming years. Rather than relying on traditional lobbying efforts to advance their proposals, the Coalition says that it works directly with the U.S. and Canadian governments in a “partnership” model to craft border security policy.
The U.S.-Canada border has been closed to non-essential travel since March due to COVID-19 and the closure was recently extended until September. The Coalition sees the eventual reopening of the border as an opportunity to move forward with its plans.
“Today, as the world tries to cope with the coronavirus pandemic, and the Canada/U.S. border remains closed, the Coalition will play a key role in shaping the border policies of both nations,” reads a description of a working group event held in June.
The sweeping vision of the Coalition (previously called Beyond Preclearance) is to have every traveller’s face “act as their passport and visa” for international travel. The plan details how in the near future, drivers of vehicles between the U.S. and Canada could be subject to camera-based facial recognition as they approach the border, allowing approved drivers to cross the border without stopping. Drivers who do not opt-in to the use of biometrics would be sent to lower-priority lanes.
International travellers coming to the U.S. or Canada by air, rail or ship would verify their identity with a facial recognition app that shares the person’s image with security agencies, who then decide if the person is allowed to enter. All travellers would be assessed by an AI-powered algorithm to determine if they pose a security risk.
Currently, facial recognition for civilian travel outside Canada is only used as part of the voluntary U.S.-Canada NEXUS pre-clearance program.
The Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) told VICE News that through the Coalition, CBSA works with industry and government to realize the agency’s “vision for the future” of the border.
“The work done (with the Coalition) also aligns with several CBSA priorities and initiatives, most notably the ongoing work on border management,” CBSA said in a statement, noting that Coalition policy proposals are primarily driven by airports and airlines.
CBSA said in 2018 it participated in a “Border and Security” panel alongside officials from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Transport Canada and U.S. Customs and Border Protection that explored how “private and public sector partnerships” could speed up the processing of people and goods at the border.
VICE News reached out to U.S. Customs and Border Protection for comment but did not receive a response in time for publication.
Privacy advocates say facial recognition technology is ripe with potential problems.
“Borders are a place where authorities have an unusual ability to collect information for security purposes and create repositories ripe for sharing with other kinds of law enforcement, including foreign powers,” says Brenda McPhail, director of the Privacy, Technology & Surveillance Project at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.
“The consequences of misidentification during a security screening at a border could be highly impactful for individuals, ranging from an inability to travel to detention.”
The long-term Coalition plan proposes creating a global preclearance model that would see biometric information from Canadian travellers shared with other “Five Eyes” countries via border agencies.
In 2018, with the support of the Coalition, facial recognition cameras were rolled out at the Buffalo, NY-Fort Erie, Ontario Peace Bridge crossing to identify commercial truck drivers coming from Canada to the U.S. The company that provided the cameras, Perceptics, suffered a hack and data breach in May 2019. The hack resulted in tens of thousands of photos of travellers and license plates collected by U.S. Customs and Border Protection being posted online, along with a trove of internal Perceptics documents.
The Coalition describes itself as a “Public Private Policy Partnership”, or P4 model. Gerry Bruno, executive director of the Coalition, says in a video on the group’s website that its purpose is to empower business interests to develop border security policy directly with the government, rather than letting public officials take the lead.
“It’s always a concern when consequential policy decisions are discussed in influential forums without public transparency,” said McPhail. “It matters who gets a say in those policies, what their motivations are and where their accountabilities lie.”
In Canada, law enforcement agencies are increasingly using facial recognition even though the technology has been shown to be racially biased. In the U.S. some cities have banned the use of facial recognition, while police in New York City recently used it to identify Black Lives Matter activist Derrick Ingram.
“As identification by face becomes perfect, privacy in surveilled spaces becomes impossible,” said McPhail.
“Facial recognition can happen from a distance, without the consent or even knowledge of an individual. The only protection people have from use or misuse of their faces as identifiers is through policy—but borders are a place where there’s often excessive secrecy about policy.”
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