Passengers at Chicago O'Hare Airport
Passengers at Chicago O'Hare Airport (Image: Scott Olson / Getty Images). Original image modified to show simulated facial recognition.
DHS Deploying Facial Recognition at U.S. Airports

U.S. Customs and Border Protection announced on Tuesday that it has begun deploying facial recognition technology at U.S. airports. 

Facial recognition systems deployed at George Bush Intercontinental Airport

In the wake of Monday’s Supreme Court’s decision reinstating a key portion of the Trump administration’s travel ban pending a hearing in October, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) began deploying its facial recognition system on Tuesday at George Bush Intercontinental Airport. While only deployed for a single daily flight from the United States to Tokyo, Japan, the system moves the agency beyond its pilot phase into actual deployment. Additional airports are scheduled for deployment this summer.

The agency launched its facial recognition pilot project in June 2016 at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. Washington Dulles International Airport followed in May. The system has been in pilot-testing mode at those locations while the agency evaluated its performance. Now, the system has moved beyond the pilot phase to actual deployment.

“Through our consultations with the airlines and airport stakeholders, and based on the success of several pilots, CBP determined that facial recognition was a viable exit solution,” said John Wagner, Deputy Executive Assistant Commissioner, Office of Field Operations. “With the expansion of this technology we will be looking at different flights, airports, lighting conditions, and internal IT configurations to demonstrate to our stakeholders that this solution is flexible, reliable and easy for travelers to use.”

Technology restricted to foreign nationals

While the technology does, of a necessity, scan the faces of all passengers de-boarding a flight into the U.S., it disregards scans of those passengers it identifies as being U.S. citizens, discarding their photos after a “short period of time”.

Required by legislative mandate

Collecting bio-metric facial information of non-citizens is required under a legislative mandate to the CBP. That mandate requires the CBP to secure U.S. borders and ensure that foreign travelers presenting themselves for admission to the United States are who they claim to be.

CBP first established its biometric screening procedures in 2004, using digital fingerprints for non-U.S. citizens. This new facial recognition system will permit the agency to more rapidly screen passengers arriving into the U.S. with less disruption to airline operations.

Does not address the issue of forged travel documents

While the new system offers promise in its ability to catch individuals attempting to travel using another person’s documents, it does not address the issue of forged travel documents, especially documents issued by failed states such as Somalia, or terror-sponsoring states such as Iran. While airline passengers traveling with a passport from those countries may may be traveling to the U.S. to engage in terror activities, their passport photo would match their face, thus failing to alert the agency to a document/face mismatch. Presumably, the CBP will be integrating this system with other existing systems that alert the agency to such “high risk” travelers.

The inability to properly vet individuals traveling into the U.S. from a terror-sponsoring country is one of the primary reasons cited by the Trump administration for enacting its travel ban.

Delta and JetBlue participating in the program

Delta and JetBlue recently announced collaborations with the CBP to integrate this facial recognition technology as part of their boarding process. Delta is currently testing eGates at John F. Kennedy International Airport and Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. JetBlue is testing additional facial recognition technology at Boston Logan International Airport that allows passengers to self-board without scanning a printed boarding pass.

Matching faces to travel documents

Using the flight manifest, the technology builds a flight specific photo gallery using photographs obtained from the travel document the traveler provided to the airline. CBP then compares the live scans of passenger faces against the document photos. If the document photo is matched to a U.S. passport, the traveler, having been confirmed to be a U.S. citizen, is automatically determined to be “out of scope” for biometric identification, and their photo is discarded.

When the officers compared photos to live people, the study found that the officers failed to detect fraudulent photos 14 percent of the time.

If the passenger’s face does not match the document photo they presented while boarding in their home country, the system alerts appropriate airport personnel to subject the passenger to additional screening and document verification before allowing them to enter the U.S.

Eliminating human error

In a 2014 study funded by the Australian Research Council, 49 passport officers from the Sydney Passport Office were tested on their face-matching abilities. Many of the officers were highly experienced, with an average of over eight years of service, and all but three had undergone a special training course on face recognition.

A Customs and Border Protection officer checks a passport
A Customs and Border Protection officer visually checks the passport of a non-resident visitor to the United States (Image: Julie Jacobson / AP Photo)

When the officers compared photos to live people, the study found that the officers failed to detect fraudulent photos 14 percent of the time.

This study underscores the most significant problem with document screening; human error. Foreign nationals seeking to enter the U.S. using stolen identities often disguise their appearance to look more like the photo in their travel document. They color their hair, grow a mustache, and even train themselves to smile like the person in their document photo. Such attempts at disguise are frequently successful.

Facial recognition systems, however, are able to identify discrepancies that a human officer might overlook, and characteristics that the traveler cannot easily disguise, such as the set of their cheekbones, the distance between their eyes, and the overall geometry of their face.

On any given day, the Customs and Border Protection Agency processes 326,723 incoming international air passengers. From these, on average, it detains 22 wanted criminals, apprehends 1,140 individuals flying on false or invalid documents, and refuses entry to 752 other individuals for various reasons.

2ANews is a media and news service, reporting on all issues impacting those freedoms enumerated within the United States constitution or its laws.

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