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"Airport face recognition could extend to US citizens, says Customs"
Tuesday, May 9, 2017
Airport face recognition could extend to US citizens, says Customs
A 'biometric pathway' through the airport, unlocked by your face
By Russell Brandom
The US government has rolled out a plan to reshape airport security around
facial recognition, playing off a wealth of passport photos and visa
Led by Customs and Border Protection, the plan is built around the Biometric
Exit program, which will register visitors leaving the US using facial
recognition. But new statements show that CBP's plans could make facial scans
necessary for US 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."
John Wagner, deputy assistant commissioner at CBP, laid out that vision at the
ConnectID conference last week. "We're going to build this for [Biometric]
Exit. We're out of time, we have to," Wagner told the crowd. "But why not make
this available to everyone? Why not look to drive the innovation across the
entire airport experience?"
According to Wagner, that could mean using facial recognition to identify
travelers arriving in the US, including passport-holding citizens. As the
system expands to TSA checkpoints or airport lounge access, it would also be
applied to domestic travelers, regardless of citizenship status. "As soon as
you check in for arrivals or departure, we're going to stage your photo in that
database," Wagner said. "We want to make it available for every transaction in
the airport where you have to show an ID today."
The Exit program is currently verifying passengers on a flight from Atlanta to
Tokyo, and is set to roll out in seven new airports over the summer. Expanding
it beyond departure gates will depend on partner agencies, particularly the TSA
- but there's already a significant appetite for using facial recognition in
other parts of the airport. Already a partner in the Atlanta test, Delta has
shown early interest in the system, seeing it as an opportunity to improve
customers' airport experiences. According to Delta Customer Initiatives chief
Christian Revilla, who also spoke at ConnectID, airport biometrics are one of
the four chief priorities set by the company's CEO for the coming year.
Reached by The Verge, Customs confirmed that it was seeking partnerships to
expand the reach of the proposed system. "We are working closely with
stakeholders to ensure successful implementation of biometric exit and
exploring potential for inbound arrivals and other processes," an agency
representative said. "We simply want to open the dialogue to others outside of
"As soon as you check in for arrivals or departure, we're going to stage your
photo in that database."
The base of the expanded facial recognition system is biometric exit, a
long-standing congressional mandate for the government to verify visa holders'
identities as they leave the country. Recommended as part of the 9/11
commission, the mandate has taken on new urgency under President Trump, who
fast-tracked the project in his controversial executive order on immigration
this January. In the months since, CBP has settled on facial recognition as the
easiest method for fulfilling the mandate. Customs obtains photos of most US
visitors as part of the visa process, which can be combined with the State
Department's passport photo system to assemble a database of passenger photos
for any international flight. All that's left is to confirm that the faces on
the flight match those photos.
Because the Exit requirement only extends to visa holders, newly taken photos
of US citizens are discarded once confirmation has been made - but Customs left
open the possibility that it would retain those photos in the future. "If we
find a need to keep that, we'll work through the privacy approvals to be able
to do so," Wagner said, "but for now, we're discarding that information."
Notably, CBP has no legal obligation to delete photos of foreign travelers; a
separate Trump executive order repealed Privacy Act protections for
non-citizens earlier this year.
Accuracy has already emerged as one of the biggest challenges for the system.
Facial recognition is far less accurate than more involved biometrics like
fingerprinting or iris scans, and making it work for Exit will require very
particular conditions. A recent round of tests by the National Institute of
Standards and Technology found that, comparing against a gallery of 48,000
faces, even the best algorithms missed a quarter of flagged suspects in a
boarding gate scanning scenario. Making the system work meant shrinking the
gallery to 480 faces, roughly the size of a modern passenger jet, at which
point the miss rate shrank to just 1 percent. The proposed Exit system has
followed NIST's lead, only scanning faces against other passengers on the
The new facial recognition engine will also have to deal with the chaos of the
airport setting. Michigan State University professor Anil Jain, one of the main
academic authorities on facial recognition, says his biggest concern is
lighting and other accessories that could throw off the reading. "Face
recognition accuracy is very susceptible to illumination conditions," says
Jain. "The person cannot smile or cry. The accuracy critically depends on these
factors." Jain also has concerns about pictures more than five years old
surfacing in the passport or visa database: if the source picture is old
enough, a person might not match with their own face.
As it expands, the system will also change the way Customs greets arriving
flights. CBP currently designates certain travelers for screening based on a
complex and secret "risk assessment" algorithm, based on age, gender, country
of origin, and other data. If those algorithms decide a passenger is a risk to
national security, they can be pulled aside for interrogation after arrival or
denied entry to the US entirely. In some cases, those stops are made as a
result of FBI requests, as a means of recruiting informants from a particular
region or community. More recently, Customs agents have also used the screening
process to pressure visa holders into providing access to Facebook and Twitter
accounts, as the government seeks to collect more data about travelers' online
Expanding facial recognition to arriving flights will have a profound impact on
that secondary screening process, giving Customs a new way to split off
designated passengers earlier in the process. "We have to get better segmenting
people according to risk," Wagner said. "All the people that we know are going
to secondary? Put them in Lane 18 or Lane 20. All the people with short
connections? Put them in Lane 1 and 2. We'll be able to see the connecting
information, so we'll be able to have that segmentation."
For critics, that could make the automated risk assessments even more harmful.
EPIC's Jeremie Scott, who is currently working on a lawsuit to force Customs to
release more information about the algorithm, says Customs should make the
system more transparent before it makes it more powerful. "If an individual
keeps getting put into a high-risk line because of AFI, they'll have no idea
why and no real recourse. It's just being done by this algorithm in the
background," Scott told The Verge. "It poses a large risk of flagging people
who shouldn't really be in that line."
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