U.S. Citizens to Receive Airport Facial Recognition Scans

Airport Security

Image via Stevan Ovicigor / iStock

Facial recognition technology could soon become a key element of revamped airport security systems, for both US and non-US citizens alike.

The core of that program, dubbed Biometric Exit, is being spearheaded by US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and underwent testing during the Obama administration, though it traces its roots back to the aftermath of 9/11. It leverages the trove of biometric data airports have amassed through passport photos and visa applications, and was originally due to launch around 2018. President Trump has since fast-tracked the program through a controversial executive order on immigration he signed in January.

For visitors to the US, the program would involve having your face photographed right before you board your flight leaving the US and having it compared against photos stored in a database to check whether you’ve violated the terms of your visa or have entered the country illegally.

During last month’s Border Security expo, CBP’s director of air exit implementation Larry Panetta confirmed that the agency was moving forward with facial recognition, The Verge reported.

“Facial recognition is the path forward we’re working on,” Panetta said. “We currently have everyone’s photo, so we don’t need to do any sort of enrollment. We have access to the Department of State records so we have photos of US Citizens, we have visa photos, we have photos of people when they cross into the US and their biometrics are captured into [DHS biometric database] IDENT.”

Biometric Exit is currently undergoing test trials on a single Delta flight from Atlanta to Tokyo, according to The Verge, and will be rolled out to several other airports this summer.

While Biometric Exit is focused on visa holders boarding outbound international flights, CBP has also floated the possibility of expanding the program to everyone boarding a flight in the US, including US citizens. That broader plan would be called the Biometric Pathway, and would cover all scenarios at airports that require identification– including boarding for domestic flights by passport-holding US citizens and even entering airport lounges.

CBP expanded on its proposed plan at the ConnectID conference last week, where John Wagner, who is deputy assistant commissioner at CBP, expressed urgency and enthusiasm for employing biometric scanning on a wide scale at US airports. “We’re going to build this for [Biometric] Exit. We’re out of time, we have to,” Wagner said to attendees. “But why not make this available to everyone? Why not look to drive the innovation across the entire airport experience?”

One potential benefit of such a security measure that Wagner pointed out was that it could end up streamlining and expediting the normally tortuous process of boarding a flight. A number of privacy and accuracy concerns have been raised about the facial recognition program however, given how new the technology is. For one, it’s unclear how CBP will determine which photos to retain and discard. And while facial recognition scanning has advanced rapidly, trials have revealed that the technology is less accurate when it comes to identifying darker skin tones.

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