Emerging from the Dennis DeConcini Port of Entry, Samuel Guevarra was sporting a thin moustache and short haircut as he walked up Grand Avenue last Wednesday.
A few moments earlier, his likeness had been captured and stored by a U.S. Customs and Border Protection camera.
Guevarra, 59, who lives in Nogales, Sonora, said he crosses the border several times a week to buy clothing, shoes, tools and other items in Nogales, Ariz. for re-sale at Tiangius markets in Sonora.
He noticed when port officers started taking his photo at the border last year, but doesn’t think about it much anymore.
“You get used to it,” he said.
The camera that took Guevarra’s photo is part of a facial recognition program that was implemented last October in the pedestrian lanes at the DeConcini and Morley ports in Nogales and this March in pedestrian lanes at the Mariposa port.
The pilot program, which was also tested in San Luis, Ariz., is now a permanent fixture and is set to expand across the southern border, starting with Laredo, Texas, according to CBP Public Affairs Liaison Hugo Nuñez.
CBP says that the technology helps its officers process border-crossers faster and more accurately detect impostors, but civil rights groups question whether the program is necessary and what it might be used for in the future.
“CBP is using this very, very powerful surveillance technology very cavalierly for purposes where it’s not really needed,” said Jay Stanley, a policy analyst with the American Civil Liberties Union.
The technology is straightforward: an algorithm compares the photo on a border-crosser’s identity document with the picture they take at the gate and determines whether the two match. CBP officers at the port get the result on their computer screen.
Nuñez said that photos of U.S. citizens are deleted “immediately” after processing, but the photos of non-citizens – like Guevarra, A Mexican citizen who enters the United States with a tourist visa – are stored in a database.
Speaking last Wednesday, Nuñez said that 180 impostors had been caught by the facial recognition system in Nogales since its implementation.
But he didn’t have statistics comparing that figure to the number caught by CBP agents in pedestrian lanes prior to implementing the facial recognition system.
And in the vehicle lanes, where the system has not been deployed, Nuñez said: “Our officers do a really good job, and they detect a lot of impostors in the vehicle lanes.”
Nuñez directed questions about the total number of photos taken using the system and the number of people caught using a false identity by CBP officers without the new technology to another spokesperson who did not respond by the NI’s press deadline.
“One of the things we are seeing with face recognition, as with so many other technologies, is a marked lack of transparency,” said Stanley, the ACLU analyst. “These are brand-new technologies that have significant potential implications for the relationship between government and citizens and we live in a democracy – we need to be able to evaluate how the government is using these technologies.”
But in a community where border-crossing is often a part of daily life, many Nogalians said they viewed the new system as another fact of life.
“They’re the things you have to do at the border,” said 18-year-old Nicole Zambrano, who crosses daily from her home in Nogales, Sonora to work at a produce warehouse in Nogales, Ariz.
While U.S. citizens can request a separate identity confirmation that doesn’t utilize the facial recognition system, Nuñez said that he wasn’t aware of anyone choosing that option.
Zambrano is a U.S. citizen and said she wasn’t aware that she could refuse the photo. But, she said, even if she had known, she wouldn’t have refused it because the alternative verification would probably take longer.
One man who spoke to the NI, Eleazar Romero, said that his sister regularly opted out of the facial recognition system.
But the 56-year-old Romero, who is a dual citizen of the United States and Mexico and crosses two or three times weekly for work at a logistics company, doesn’t ask to skip the photo.
“I’m not hiding anything,” he said.
Stanley added that surveillance systems like CBP’s facial recognition program “tend to expand over time.”
“We just don’t know how the data may be being collected, stored, and used,” he said. “Either now or once the spotlight shifts away from the technology and everybody starts to accept it.”
Last Wednesday, David Quintero, 30, another dual-citizen who crosses the border for work, was heading back to his car, which he’d parked near the Mariposa port, after crossing back into Nogales, Ariz.
He has thought about the facial recognition system and knows that he could refuse the photo, though he said he hasn’t.
But he still wonders what will happen to all those pictures that CBP has taken of him at the border: “Where is my photo? Is the question.”