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Border Patrol reviewing body cams with facial recognition for checkpoints

Homeland Security officials are considering body-worn cameras for agents at Border Patrol checkpoints that would be linked to facial recognition software, according to a government filing. 

In a request for information package published Wednesday, U.S. Customs and Border Protection said it was seeking guidance on the program for "information, planning purposes, and market research only." 

Calling the cameras part of an Incident-Driven Video Recording system, agency officials explained that they wanted to add the cameras, or IDVRS, at "known interdiction points" which would include U.S. Border Patrol checkpoints. 

Among the "features of potential interest" for the system would be a "biometric identity verification" that would allow the cameras to transmit images to a computer system that would give agents the ability to "run facial recognition against a database of preexisting images" and compare facial images against a "real-time image of the person." 

Currently, officials at U.S. ports are adding some biometric systems, but Border Patrol has avoided similar systems. At the same time, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has been mining driver’s license databases in at least three states using facial recognition technology, analyzing millions of photos, the New York Times reported

Called an RFI, the request is often the first step toward building a program, and the request gives a few details about the agency's potential plans to give agents body-worn cameras, along with computer software to manage and redact video captured by the cameras.

For years, the agency has flirted with body-worn cameras even as many local police agencies, county sheriff's departments, and some federal agencies, like the National Park Services, have accepted body cams as part-and-parcel of their daily operations. 

And, notably, unlike these other law enforcement agencies, Border Patrol agents do not have cameras mounted in their vehicles, but instead rely on small networks of cameras along the U.S.-Mexico border, or a smattering of remote camera systems mounted on vehicles, or in fixed locations on towers. 

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For nearly four years, CBP has repeatedly reviewed body camera systems, but has yet to add them into the agency's operations, following an Obama-era task force that recommended that policy agencies including the cameras to curb use-of-force complaints and incidents. 

Border Patrol has been harshly criticized for use-of-force policies, following a series of deadly incidents along the U.S.-Mexico border, including the 2012 shooting of 16-year-old Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez in Nogales, Sonora. 

In 2015, in a report to Congress, CBP argued that the while "many state and local agencies utilize cameras and observe positive benefits" from body-worn cameras" the "operating environments and needs of CBP differ in many respects from those of other agencies." 

"A significant number of CBP personnel work in harsh physical environments, in some locations with limited internet connectivity, and the nature of CBP law enforcement encounters are unique in many ways. Additionally, varied assignments, uniforms, equipment, and environmental elements can affect the functionality of technology," wrote then-Deputy Commissioner of CBP Kevin McAleenan. 

McAleenan later rose from CBP commissioner to DHS Secretary in April after the Trump administration ousted Kirstjen Nielsen. However, following his four predecessors, McAleenan is leaving the agency, though he will remain in the position through the end of October. 

Last May, the agency announced it would start testing body-worn cameras in "operational environments" over a six-month period at nine different CBP units, including a unit of the Tucson Air Branch, the part of CBP known as Air and Marine Operations. However, the agency did not publish the results of that test. 

A review of body-worn cameras, published in the journal Homeland Security Affairs, estimated that for CBP, it would cost around $103.45 million per year to deploy the cameras. Though that estimate includes only the cameras, and not the necessary infrastructure, and was based on the average annual cost of cameras used by several police departments, including the Mesa Police Department. 

Response to the agency's request are due on October 31, according to the Federal Business Opportunities website. 

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A Border Patrol agent in the desert near Arivaca, Arizona.

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