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Customs Airport Facial Scanners Are Riddled With Issues

Sept. 26, 2018
3 min read
Customs Airport Facial Scanners Are Riddled With Issues
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US Customs and Border Protection's Biometric Entry-Exit Program was developed to catch people overstaying their Visas by using facial scanning technology when foreign visitors leave the country. It's live in nine US airports, including Washington Dulles (IAD) and Orlando (MCO), and CBP hopes to raise that to 20 airports by 2021.

The Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security issued a report this week detailing the roll-out of Customs and Border Protection's (CBP) biometric security program. While the report said that CBP had made "considerable progress" it notes the facial recognition tool doesn't have a high success rate.

“During the pilot, CBP encountered various technical and operational challenges that limited biometric confirmation to only 85 percent of all passengers processed,” the report said. “These challenges included poor network availability, a lack of dedicated staff, and compressed boarding times due to flight delays.”

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Still, the system did detect at least 1300 people who had overstayed their permitted time in the country — but the report suspects that the number would have been significantly higher had the system been working properly.

"CBP could not consistently match individuals of certain age groups or nationalities," the report said.

CBP is also relying on airline partners, like Delta, and airports to help get the program off the ground with funding and staff — but it's future appears to be uncertain. Airlines are starting to use facial recognition to board aircraft, which TPG contributor Mike Arnot tested out earlier this year.

facial recognition boarding delta
Delta guiding customer through facial recognition boarding during a test at DTW (Photo courtesy of Delta Air Lines)

"Given uncertain airline commitment, CBP still must address longstanding questions on how the program will be funded and staffed," the inspector general wrote.

The Intercept points out obvious privacy issues but also found that CBP was frustrated by airlines not slowing down the boarding process in order to get everyone scanned, even if it resulted in a flight delay. The Inspector General describes an event as such:

Demanding flight departure schedules posed other operational problems that significantly hampered biometric matching of passengers during the pilot in 2017. Typically, when incoming flights arrived behind schedule, the time allotted for boarding departing flights was reduced. In these cases, CBP allowed airlines to bypass biometric processing in order to save time. As such, passengers could proceed with presenting their boarding passes to gate agents without being photographed and biometrically matched by CBP first. We observed this scenario at the Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport when an airline suspended the biometric matching process early to avoid a flight delay. This resulted in approximately 120 passengers boarding the flight without biometric confirmation.

The report said it was unlikely that the facial recognition technology would be in full operation at the US' top 20 airports by 2021.

A spokesperson for CBP told TechCrunch the agency has made “significant advancements” since the inspector general finished taking its findings in January 2018 — reporting that "biometric matching [now] averages at 97 percent."

H/T: TechCrunch

Featured image by BA and Vision-Box biometric gates at LAX. Photo by author.