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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 Verge

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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