Orlando Airport will be 1st to use biometrics at international gates

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Photo Credit: Greater Orlando Aviation Authority

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is accelerating its use of biometric facial recognition technology to process passengers departing the U.S. on international flights. 

But the agency's latest announcement -- that by October, Orlando Airport will become the first in the country to deploy facial recognition technology at all international gates -- has raised the hackles of privacy advocates in the U.S. Senate. 

In a joint statement issued June 22, Sens. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) called on CBP's overseer, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), to complete a formalized rulemaking process to address privacy and security concerns before expanding the biometric exit program. 

"American travelers deserve to know exactly who has access to their facial recognition data, how their information will be safeguarded and how they can opt out of the program altogether," the senators wrote. 

A biometric welcome mat

Facial recognition biometrics isn't only being used for departure at Orlando Airport. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is also testing the technology as a way to speed international entry.

At present, CBP requires Americans who don't have Global Entry to show their passport to an agent upon entry. Global Entry participants must pose for a photo, scan their passports and scan their fingertips at a kiosk. Most foreign nationals are fingerprinted on every entry.

Biometric machines being tested at Orlando, however, simplify those processes.

For example, Americans without Global Entry don’t have to display their passports. Instead, they pose for a photo, which will be matched to data CBP already has on file. Global Entry members no longer have to do the fingerprint or passport scan. Foreign nationals only have to do a fingerprint scan once in their lives.

CBP expects the streamlined process to speed entry and reduce lines.

At Orlando, departing international passengers, including both foreign visitors leaving the U.S. and Americans heading abroad, will have their photo taken by a biometric facial recognition system at their departure gates. The photo will then be matched to passport photos that the DHS already keeps on file. CBP said processing takes less than two seconds and has a 99% matching rate. 

CBP is also testing biometric exit at 12 other airports, with the goal of making the procedure universal in the U.S. 

In an interview, John Wagner, deputy executive assistant commissioner for CBP's office of field operations, said that in the coming months a few more airports will be ready to announce plans to deploy facial recognition technology at all international departure gates. The deployments come pursuant to a mandate from Congress that CBP collect biometric records on all foreign nationals departing the U.S. The mandate, however, doesn't apply to American travelers. 

The exit checks advance the federal government's goal of more thoroughly tracking visa overstays by foreign nationals. The use of biometric exit technology, Wagner said, provides customs officials with more reliable confirmation that someone has departed on a scheduled flight than do airlines' passenger manifests. With biometric confirmation at the boarding gate, officials can know that the flyer is the true passport holder and not someone who is fraudulently trying to board a flight.

Photos of international visitors will be held for years and can also be used to check FBI and terrorist watchlists. Photos of Americans, in contrast, are held for no more than 14 days and are used to evaluate the accuracy of the facial recognition technology, according to a September 2017 Privacy Assessment Update published by DHS. The assessment also asserted that as the test phase continues, American will have the option not to participate in the facial scans. 

Wagner said that CBP doesn't share photos of Americans with other agencies and that doing so wouldn't be of use in any case, since DHS already has the data of all U.S. passport holders. As CBP winds down the pilot phase of the biometric entry process, it would like to move toward getting rid of the photos of U.S. flyers as soon as the match is confirmed, he added. 

Despite such assurances, Markey and Lee said that DHS and CBP need to lay out the specifications and intent of the biometric exit program via a rulemaking process before expanding it beyond the test phase to cover full airports like Orlando. Formalized rulemaking would result in the program's parameters being codified in the Federal Register.

Such rulemaking, the senators wrote in a May 11 letter, "will also ensure a full vetting of this potentially sweeping program that could impact every American leaving the country by airport."

Among the issues the senators said should be addressed are specific details on the opt-out program for American citizens and specific procedures for what data CBP collects under the program, with which other agencies it shares the data and how it will protect the data. 

Wagner said DHS has already drafted rulemaking proposals, which are likely to be put forward for public comment and review before October. But he rejected the notion that the rulemaking process must be complete before the exit program is expanded to include full airports rather than just some international gates within airports. 

"We're running pilot programs first, which we have regulatory authority to do," he said, explaining that CBP will still consider the pilot ongoing, even after the Orlando expansion.

He also said the agency tries to post signs at all gates explaining that Americans have the option not to participate in the facial scan, and it encourages airlines to make announcements about opt-out procedures.

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