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Smile, you’re on candid camera: Jetblue passenger blows lid on DHS facial recognition program

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Wednesday, April 24, 2019

I know I am aging myself here, but after reading about the JetBlue passenger who was none-too-happy to find out that her face would be used as ID for boarding, I thought back to the TV show of my youth called Candid Camera. Now if you are younger than 50 (yes, I am less than a month away from a half century old), you probably won’t remember this show that featured a hidden camera with lovable host Allen Funt (and later with son Peter), who at the end of each skit would tell the person they are on a hidden camera show. Laughter would ensue and everyone would agree that it was all good fun. 

The difference between then and now, though, is this whole concept of consent to being on video, not to mention current comfort levels within society today of having your identity out there in a database. I mean, let’s be honest, the idea of DHS/Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) collecting and protecting millions of biometric profiles is a bit frightening, but that is exactly what the agency plans to do in the next four years, with the ultimate goal of making access as frictionless, and hopefully, as safe as possible.

In fact, according to its fiscal report for 2018, DHS/CBP built a facial biometric matching service using biographic Advance Passenger Information System (APIS) manifest data and existing photographs of travelers boarding international flights. The biometric matching service is a robust cloud-based service that leverages existing advance passenger information to create a pre-positioned “gallery” of face images from U.S. Government holdings. The galleries are smaller, more manageable data sets that can be segregated based on APIS data for specific flights. The photographs can come from passport applications, visa applications, or interactions with CBP at a prior border encounter where CBP typically takes a photograph. The biometric matching service then compares a live photo of the traveler to the gallery of face images for that flight to identify the traveler and enable CBP to confirm the traveler’s crossing. 

On exit, the matching service identifies the traveler, creates an exit record, and enables CBP to biometrically confirm the departure of in-scope, non-U.S. citizens. CBP is working towards full implementation of biometric exit in the air environment within the next four years to account for over 97 percent of departing commercial air travelers from the United States. In order to realize full implementation, CBP partnered with airports and airlines to deploy solutions to use biometric exit data-utilizing cameras (supplied by airports or airlines) that are integrated with the biometric solution.  

As a result of the demonstrations and partnerships described above, CBP determined that facial recognition technology at the airline departure gate is a scalable solution for biometric exit in the air environment. At the end of FY 2018, biometric exit solutions were operational at 15 locations, and CBP has received many commitment letters from airport authorities and/or air carriers supporting biometric exit operations. Since its inception, over two million passengers on over 15,000 flights have used the technology on exit, with an average biometric match rate of 98 percent. As of December 2018, over 7,000 Out-Of-Country Overstays have been biometrically confirmed. Furthermore, similar successes have occurred when using the biometric technology in the air entry environment; CBP has to date used this data to identify six travelers attempting entry presenting travel documents not belonging to them, or presenting altered travel documents.

In FY 2018, CBP expanded the use of the Biometric Exit Mobile (BE-Mobile) program at land borders nationwide. CBP deployed mobile technology to the land border POEs, which allowed CBP officers working outbound pulse and surge operations to process exiting travelers using the BE-Mobile application. The BE-Mobile application creates a biometrically confirmed exit record for a departing traveler. This capability is another means by which CBP can close out entry/exit records biometrically, thus, helping to resolve some potential overstay records. From December 2017 through November 2018, CBP officers created a biometric exit record on over 23,000 travelers at the land border.

The agency is also working on both the southern and northern border using biometric technology, with plans to expand the application to identify people in cars.

What is your thought on the safety and security of protecting airports and borders with biometric solutions?