The Eyes Have It: Airport Security Looks To Facial Recognition Technology

by Richard D’Ambrosio


Imagine a day when instead of looking at a photo in your passport, airport officials just look at your face.

Customs and Border Protection (CBP) already is considering using facial recognition software to track airline passengers at American airports, and Delta Airlines this week said it is making airport biometrics a key priority.

In a first for U.S. carriers, Delta will introduce four self-service bag drop machines at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport equipped with facial recognition technology this summer. The machines will match customers with their passport photos through identification verification.

In a press statement, Delta senior vice president for airport customer service and cargo Gareth Joyce said, "This is the next step in curating an airport experience that integrates thoughtful innovation from start to finish. We're making travel easier than ever for our customers and continuing to deliver a leading customer experience."

At his keynote presentation at the ConnectID conference in Washington in early May, meanwhile, CBP deputy assistant commissioner John Wagner discussed the CBP’s “Biometric Exit” program, which helps identify visitors traveling to and from the United States on a visa.

The program is designed to capture facial images, images of a traveler’s iris, and fingerprints, and match them with images from passports and visa applications. It has been tested on some U.S. citizens returning on international flights at U.S. airports, including Washington Dulles and JFK International in New York, reports The Verge, an online technology and science publication.

“We’re going to build this for [Biometric] Exit. We’re out of time, we have to,” Wagner told the crowd, according to a report from The Verge. “But why not make this available to everyone? Why not look to drive the innovation across the entire airport experience? As soon as you check in for arrivals or departure, we’re going to stage your photo in that database. We want to make it available for every transaction in the airport where you have to show an ID today.”

The Biometric Exit program has been part of U.S. immigration law in some form since 1996, but has been slow to develop. President Trump has been trying to fast track the project through his immigrations executive orders, and CBP reportedly has settled on facial recognition to implement the program.

Still, facial recognition would not be an easy program to apply across an entire airport. In one recent test of 48,000 faces, about a quarter of flagged suspects were not detected. Lighting, facial expressions and other factors can impede facial recognition goals. Also, capturing facial images and other biometric data concerns privacy advocates, including some members of Congress.

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