Homeland Security

CBP sets biometric tech at more airports

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After years of searching for ways to implement a biometric entry/exit system to verify the identities of foreign travelers moving through U.S. airports, Customs and Border Protection has rolled out the technology at five major U.S. airports since June.

The latest deployments of the technology came in twin Aug. 8 statements announcing the agency had installed facial recognition biometric exit technology at Houston's William P. Hobby International and at Las Vegas' McCarran International Airport.

CBP said it will use the technology at McCarran to screen a single daily flight from the U.S. to Guadalajara, Mexico, and for selected flights out of Hobby International.

The two airports join Dulles International outside Washington, D.C., Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston, and O'Hare International Airport in Chicago in the CBP's summertime deployment campaign.

All five deployments, said the agency, build on an initial June 2016 facial recognition pilot at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

The summertime initiative follows what John Wagner, CBP deputy executive assistant commissioner, described in a May Capitol Hill hearing as a breakthrough. The Department of Homeland Security has been searching for a solution to effectively track visa overstays since the capability was first suggested by the 9/11 Commission years ago.

"We figured out a better way to position the data we already have on travelers to make the inspection process a lot more efficient. In non-technical terms, we moved the biometrics of the traveler expected to be on a departing flight out of the DHS [Office of Biometric Identity Management] database and into its own temporary secure database until we encounter the person," he told the panel.

The new process, he said, has been used at Hartsfield-Jackson, taking photos of passengers and matching them against the temporary database. Wagner said in May that tens of thousands of people had been processed with the system in the 10 months it had been working. Accuracy has been in the "high 90th percentile," he said. Wagner also said the agency planned to push the technology out to more airports over the summer.

The CBP solution uses airlines' flight manifest to build a flight-specific photo gallery using photographs from the travel document travelers provided to the airline. The agency then compares a live photo from the facial recognition technology against the document photo in the gallery to ensure the traveler is the true bearer of the document. If the photo captured at boarding is matched to a U.S. passport, the traveler -- having been confirmed as a U.S. citizen -- is automatically determined to be out of scope for biometric exit purposes and the photo is discarded after a short period of time.

CBP said it is also working on other fronts with biometric solutions. Delta and JetBlue are collaborating with CBP to integrate facial recognition technology as part of the boarding process.

Additionally, CBP said Delta is testing eGates at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City and Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

In a July 28 statement, Delta said it plans incorporate biometric boarding later this year as part of a three-month pilot project at Hartsfield-Jackson to improve its passengers' boarding experience there.

The airline said the biometric boarding technology it is using in the trial will be based on a pilot project underway at Ronald Reagan International Airport in Washington, D.C., that allows passengers to use their fingerprints as their boarding pass.

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, tele.com 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 mrockwell@fcw.com or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.


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