Facial Recognition in U.S. Airports

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By: Padma Athreya

The U.S. government has rolled out a plan to reshape airport security around facial recognition, playing off a wealth of passport photos and visa applications.

Soon, it may be hard for visa holders to board an international flight without submitting to a facial geometry scan. Customs and Border Protection began testing facial recognition systems at Dulles Airport in 2015, then expanded the tests to New York’s JFK Airport last year. British Airways is rolling out a similar face-reading check-in kiosks system at London’s Heathrow Airport, comparing faces captured at security screenings with a separate capture at the boarding gate. Now, a new project is poised to bring those same systems to every international airport in the U.S.

Called Biometric Exit, the project would use facial matching systems to identify every visa holder as they leave the country. Passengers would have their photos taken immediately before boarding, to be matched with the passport-style photos provided with the visa application. If there’s no match in the system, it could be an evidence that the visitor entered the country illegally. The system is currently being tested on a single flight from Atlanta to Tokyo, but after being expedited by the Trump administration, it’s expected to expand to more airports this summer, eventually rolling out to every international flight and border crossing in the U.S.

Customs and Border Protection agents currently take photographs and fingerprints from every visa holder entering the country, but there are no similar measures to verify someone who have left the country before their visa expires. The Department of Homeland Security estimates that roughly half a million visitors to the U.S. overstay their visas each year – but without a verifiable exit process, the government has no way to determine how many visitors are actually overstaying or who they are. Biometric Exit would close that loop, giving Customs and Border Protection (agents verifiable biometric proof) that a given U.S. visitor has left the country.

Customs and Border Protection latest statements show that Customs and Border Protection (CBP)’s plans could make facial scans necessary for U.S. citizens as well, documenting them when they reenter the country or pass through TSA checkpoints. The result would eventually grow into an airport-wide system Customs officials call “The Biometric Pathway”.

This June, a trial was conducted in Boston’s Logan International Airport by JetBlue Airline for passengers boarding a Caribbean flight. One has to get in line and right before he or she gets to the jet bridge, there’s a camera that’s about the size of a shoebox. It takes the photo and the person gets a checkmark, saying he or she is good to go. Several airports are being equipped with Kiosks for scanning and airport assistants to help passengers with this new process to keep the Passport on the scanner and look straight up into the camera.

“The information in this article have been extracted from the articles which appeared in The Verge by Russell Brandom on May 9, 2017 and npr.org’s all Tech Considered section on June 6, 2017 by Asma Khalid”

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