CBP Implements Facial Recognition at Border Crossings in California - Identity Review - Identity Review | Global Tech Think Tank

The U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) announced February 18 that they have implemented Simplified Arrival, a streamlined arrival process utilizing facial biometrics, at the pedestrian border crossing in Calexico, California. The news at Calexico follows previous announcements of Simplified Arrival being installed at several locations across the country, such as the McCarran Airport in Las Vegas, Miami International Airport and Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

Simplified Arrival is described as an “enhanced international arrival process that uses facial biometrics to automate the manual document checks that are already required for admission into the United States”. Its adoption has been spurred on by demand for secure, contactless identity verification during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Calexico Port of Entry is a land border crossing between Mexico and the U.S. that processes around 3 million travelers each year. CBP has already implemented Simplified Arrival at pedestrian border crossings in Cross Border Xpress (CBX) and Tecate, California, as well as at border crossings in Arizona and Texas.

History and Development

Following the 9/11 attacks, the government was keen to investigate new technologies that could be used to combat terrorism and verify and log the identities of those wishing to enter the country. Legislation was passed urging the Department of State and Department of Homeland Security to utilize biometrics to screen non-U.S. citizens entering and exiting the country.

Pilot programs have caught many people attempting to enter the country illegally. “Most days we find a minimum of two or three undocumented people, but sometimes we find as many as eight to 10 boarding a flight,” said Bianca Frazier, a CBP enforcement officer at the Atlanta Airport. Since 2018, CBP reports they have used facial recognition technology to prevent more than 400 imposters from entering the country.

Travelers passing through the border crossing will be required to stop at an inspection point to have their photo taken, which will then be compared against the existing photo retrieved from their travel document and government databases. If the photos cannot be matched, the traveler must undergo a traditional inspection process. CBP assures that the facial recognition technology is 98 percent effective, and offers a contactless and more accurate alternative to fingerprinting.

“As part of our ongoing land border innovation efforts, CBP is developing a range of enhanced processes and services for travelers that are not only touchless and efficient, but provide an additional layer of security and protect the privacy of all travelers,” said Anne Maricich, Acting Director of Field Operations, San Diego Field Office at U.S. Customs and Border Protection. “The safety and security of our nation is our highest priority, which is reflected in our ability to prevent imposters from entering into the United States while also providing a secure and streamlined travel experience for legitimate travelers using facial biometrics.

Ethical Qualms of Facial Recognition

The ACLU has previously denounced the CBP’s plan to dramatically expand facial recognition technology to all entry and exit ports in the U.S., citing the drastic accuracy gulf between white people and minority groups and the ability to use facial recognition without people’s consent.

They deemed it a slippery slope to a “dystopian surveillance infrastructure that threatens our rights to privacy and anonymity, and disproportionately harms people of color and immigrants.” Despite these protests, and despite recent legislation designed to curb the spread of unauthorized facial recognition, CBP seems intent on continuing the widespread rollout of its Simplified Arrival system.

It’s important to note that only non-U.S. citizens are mandated to undergo facial recognition; U.S. citizens may opt out of the program. Furthermore, if U.S. citizens do agree to have their photo taken, those images are deleted after 12 hours, whereas CBP has indicated that they would store photos of foreigners in a Department of Homeland Security database.


Lydia You is a computer scientist from Princeton University living in New York City. She is a Tech Innovation Fellow at Identity Review covering the intersection of global tech policy, internet culture and the future of digital media.

Contact Lydia You at lydia@identityreview.com.

Do you have information to share with Identity Review? Email us at press@identityreview.com.

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