CBP expands facial recognition program to visa-free travelers

Facial recognition

Certain travelers arriving at John F. Kennedy International Airport on Jan. 19 were scanned by Customs and Border Protection's new facial comparison technology to help match individuals to their passports.

The initial deployment of the facial comparison system will apply to first-time Visa Waiver Program travelers and returning U.S. citizens with ePassports, according to a CBP statement on Jan. 19.

Along with the JFK deployment, CBP said it is also conducting additional tests to evaluate new biometric technologies in multiple environments in fiscal 2016.

The program, which allows visa-free travel for citizens of certain U.S. allies, has come under fire for gaps that could potentially allow unwanted or dangerous people into the U.S. Lawmakers have called for biometric identification capabilities to be added to the program to help verify identities of program participants.

The JFK deployment of the facial comparison technology comes after CBP tested it last year at Washington Dulles International Airport in Virginia. The results of Dulles testing, CBP said, showed the system was adept at matching passports photos with live captured images.

According to the agency, the technology compares an image of the traveler taken during the normal inspection process to the image stored on that traveler's ePassport. CBP said it will delete the images it takes onsite, unless enforcement action is required.

In a DHS privacy assessment of CBP's 1-to-1 Facial Comparison Project, CBP said the Dulles field test used the technology on travelers 18 and older who had ePassports. CBP said it expanded that group to include similarly aged first-time travelers from Visa Waiver Program countries because of the "appreciable risk of passport and identity fraud among this population of travelers."

Currently, the Visa Waiver Program allows eligible citizens from 38 designated countries to travel to the U.S. and stay for 90 days for tourism or business purposes without getting a visa. The privacy assessment said such visits account for about two-thirds of all business and leisure travel to the U.S.  The U.S. currently uses fingerprints to biometrically enroll and verify travelers' identity in the program.

The Facial Comparison Project allows CBP to biometrically match a Visa Waiver Program traveler to their e-Passport before enrolling that individual into DHS data systems, the assessment said. The facial comparison project gives more uniform levels of confidence in identities among first-time visitor, returning  visitors and travelers using a U.S. visa, since there were some inconsistencies in how CBP collected the information among those groups.

The facial comparison system, DHS' assessment found, assists CBP officers in the inspection process but does not replace officer discretion at any point.

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a senior staff writer at FCW, whose beat focuses on acquisition, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Energy.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.


  • Defense
    Ryan D. McCarthy being sworn in as Army Secretary Oct. 10, 2019. (Photo credit: Sgt. Dana Clarke/U.S. Army)

    Army wants to spend nearly $1B on cloud, data by 2025

    Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy said lack of funding or a potential delay in the JEDI cloud bid "strikes to the heart of our concern."

  • Congress
    Rep. Jim Langevin (D-R.I.) at the Hack the Capitol conference Sept. 20, 2018

    Jim Langevin's view from the Hill

    As chairman of of the Intelligence and Emerging Threats and Capabilities subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committe and a member of the House Homeland Security Committee, Rhode Island Democrat Jim Langevin is one of the most influential voices on cybersecurity in Congress.

Stay Connected


Sign up for our newsletter.

I agree to this site's Privacy Policy.