TSA tests facial recognition at LAX

Facial recognition 

The Transportation Security Administration has started a three-week trial of facial recognition technology at one of the busiest airports in the U.S. that compares almost real-time images of passengers' faces with the images on their electronic passports.

The trial, beginning Jan. 30 at Los Angeles International Airport, is one of many biometric identification trials underway at various airports around the U.S. being conducted by TSA and Customs and Border Protection.

The programs are aimed not only at making passenger security and customs lines more efficient, but also at more quickly verifying passenger identities by comparing just-captured fingerprints and facial images with verified and digitized records.

TSA wants to leverage facial images taken at specially designated gates against existing identification photos on e-passports to verify identity, instead of using temporary databases.

The approach, it said in the privacy assessment of the trial, could transfer to other "trusted identification" document programs, such as Real-ID compliant driver's licenses that match newly gathered biometric information with biometric and biographic data on existing ID.

To notify people of the voluntary trial, TSA said it has posted signs designating the technology trial lanes in the terminal.

Under TSA's trial process, passengers will present their digital or paper boarding passes to the e-Gate (electronic gate) scanner, which captures the name on the document. The scanner will then match the name to boarding pass data. If the names match, the system will extract the passenger's photo from the e-Passport's embedded chip to use for facial matching. Passengers will be prompted to look at the facial recognition camera, which captures an image in real-time. That photo is then compared to the picture taken from the e-Passport.

Positive matches open the security gates. Negative matches are referred to the document checker for review.

Facial image data will reside only momentarily on the e-Gate non-networked computer, according the privacy assessment, with personally identifiable information, including the e-Passport and real-time facial images, being deleted once the passenger completes the e-Gate process. TSA plans to retain statistical data about the e-Gate and component operation. The technology is stand-alone and not networked to any TSA or airport IT system.

Another Department of Homeland Security agency, Customs and Border Protection, also is moving quickly ahead on trials of its biometric exit program at several U.S. airports. A biometric exit capability allowing CBP to track visa holders leaving the county had been a protracted challenge for the agency, as the agency sought a way to effectively and quickly compare biometric scans at airport checkpoints with image databases.

The agency had a breakthrough in 2017, finding a way to compare photos of international travelers against pre-populated galleries created from previously collected images.

British Airways and CBP tested a facial imaging system at LAX in December based on that process.

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.


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