Airport biometric tech advances under CBP

Ongoing tests of an entry/exit verification system based on facial recognition technology are proceeding at U.S. airports.

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Two Homeland Security agencies entered the second phase of tests for a facial recognition technology that compares photos of airline passengers on international departing flights against a temporary cloud-based database populated with previously captured photos of passengers.

The testing is the next step for the technology's possible wider deployment by Customs and Border Protection and the Transportation Security Agency.

Airports and airline partners where the system is being tested have said the system can shave 15 minutes off of traditional manual methods of comparing passenger ID photos against larger databases.

Traveler participation in the process is voluntary.

CBP sees the Traveler Verification System  as a breakthrough for monitoring visa entry/exit status for international visitors because it unshackles the verification process from huge databases that were too unwieldy for airport locations and automates the time-consuming manual matching of the images from the database. The new system generates biometric templates of the historical images, including passport and visa photos of travelers for given flights and temporarily stores them in a manageable virtual private cloud.

The first phase of testing, which began last October, looked at the feasibility of using TVS at TSA checkpoints for identity verification.

The second phase, said CBP in a Privacy Impact Assessment document released Aug.  14, tests how passenger photo data is stored and sent to TSA's travel document checker for international outbound flights. The data from a CBP-owned camera near an agent's podium takes a picture that is transmitted to TVS, converted into a template and matched against the preassembled passenger photos taken from other documents stored on other databases. The results are sent to the TSA agent's tablet computer through a dashboard app.

CBP and TSA have been testing the system at several airports across the country since last year. Airports include Atlanta's Jackson/Hartfield International, Boston's Logan International and Los Angeles International, as well as Dulles in the Washington, D.C. area.

Because of the more compact profile of the system and time savings associated with it, airports and their airline partners testing it see it as a more attractive solution for entry/exit checks. 

In April, Greater Orlando Aviation Authority Board voted to set Orlando International Airport as the first U.S. airport to fully deploy CBP's Biometric Entry and Exit Program across 30 of its gates and two CBP checkpoints there, as well as setting $4 million in funding to integrate the system into those areas.

CBP said it is working closely with TSA to install signs where the voluntary system is being used to notify passengers they can opt out of the biometric screening in favor of regular TSA screening, as well as provide explanatory pamphlets for passengers.

CBP said it would purge facial images of international passengers from its secure database "as quickly as possible" and wipe the images from the TSA agent's tablet within two minutes. It said it does not keep images of U.S. citizens, but said it would retain non-U.S. citizen images on its Automated Targeting System for passenger vetting for 14 days for continued evaluation. It said it deletes all photos from the cloud database within 12 hours of a match.

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