Privacy SOS

Biometrics industry misrepresents Tsarnaev intelligence failures to sell airport identity screenings

The biometrics industry is misrepresenting the intelligence failures that enabled the Boston Marathon attacks in what appear to be aims to profit from the introduction of a universal biometrics scheme for airport and seaport travelers.

In a report explaining why congress should allocate between $400m and $600m for the first-year implementation costs on a “Biometrics Exit” program, Janice Kephart, CEO of the Secure Identity and Biometrics Association, writes:

“Biometric exit is not just feasible, it is necessary for both immigration integrity and security…

“The FBI lost a critical lead in the April 2013 Boston Marathon bomber terrorist attack because the lead perpetrator's name, Tsarneav, was misspelled on the outgoing airline manifest to Russia.”

Wow, sounds scary—and like we really need biometrics to stop big bad terrorists! But that statement simply is not true.

Despite widespread inaccuracies in press reporting on the issue, Customs workers at JFK airport notified Joint Terrorism Task Force officials in Boston of Tsarnaev's travel to Russia days before he left, and did the same days before his flight back to the United States. For some unknown reason, the FBI officials in Boston did not act on this information. The claim that officials did not question Tsarnaev at the border upon his return because his name was misspelled in a database is patently false. They knew he was coming back into the country. They simply did nothing.

The House Homeland Security committee wrote up a report about the intelligence failures that predated the marathon. Here's the relevant section:

No one can verify if the Customs agent on the FBI's JTTF passed on the information about Tsarnaev's outbound and return travel to the FBI case agent who investigated the Chechen immigrant in 2011. That is hardly the same thing as "no one knew he was traveling because we spelled his name wrong."

If surveillance profiteers are going to argue that we need to implement a global biometrics system at all US border crossings, so be it. But let's have a conversation based in facts, not fear mongering. Biometrics wouldn't have made a difference in this case if the FBI case agent knew Tsarnaev was traveling and specifically declined to have him held for questioning.

That's human error, and no technology will ever fix it.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.