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CBP to finally implement biometric exit mandate at airports


U.S. Customs and Border Protection deputy executive assistant commissioner John Wagner said the agency is finally implementing the legislative mandated biometric exit program in which it will verify the identities of departing foreign visitors at aiports, according to a report by Fedscoop.

The announcement comes a few weeks after the Department of Homeland Security released a report that estimated that 629,000 visitors to the country overstayed their visas in 2016 due to the lack of a comprehensive biometric exit system at the nation’s ports of departure.

“Frankly, the government has struggled with this [mandate] for more than 10 years,” Wagner said Thursday at SAP’s FedScoop Digital Nation Summit., adding that the agency would achieve the goal by using existing data collection, the latest facial recognition technology and cloud computing. “We’re out of time, we’re out of excuses.”

Wagner acknowledged there would be privacy issues, especially when considering that the facial recognition technology would capture images of U.S. citizens as part of the initiative.

The initial legislative mandate for an automated identity check on departing foreign visitors goes all the way back to the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act.

Since then, the 9/11 Congress has passed three laws calling on the Department of Homeland Security to establish a biometric exit system.

Wagner attributes the lack of proper infrastructure as the main reason why the mandate had not been fulfilled.

He explained that despite completing several pilots in which it tested several different mobile technologies, as well as working with the TSA, airlines and airports, the government “didn’t build [its] airports and… land ports of entry with departure control in mind.”

Another critical issue preventing the proper implementation of the mandate was the use of a one-to-many match method. The database of biometric information on foreign visitors — which contains about 200 million fingerprints and one billion photos — would take 2-3 days to discover the identity of a departing passenger based on a print or photo.

In comparison, arriving passengers are checked using a one-to-one match in which the biographical data from the passport is used to pull the biometric data from the database and then the identity of passengers is confirmed against their own biometrics.

The fingerprints also operate on a one-to-many match against a significantly smaller dataset which contains the fingerprints of wanted fugitives and suspected terrorists.

The process takes about 2 minutes, which makes the process too long to repeat for departing passengers at the boarding gate.

Wagner said the agency eventually came up with the idea to use existing processes and data it has already collected.

When a passenger checks in for a departing international flight, their biographical data is transmitted to CBP, where it is checked against terrorist watchlist data. Using this biographical data, the agency then compiles a manifest for the flight.

“What if we could use that [biographical data] to pull the photos of the departing passengers on that flight into a segmented cloud” and then check the faces of those boarding the plane, one-to-many, against that dataset, which he said would take only a few seconds because of its small size and the efficiency of the latest matching algorithms,” Wagner said.

The technology has already been piloted at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and is currently being tested at Washington Dulles International Airport for one daily flight to Dubai.

Wagner said that the process could be used “any place you have to show your ID [in the airport] … the TSA checkpoint, the duty free store, the [executive] lounge.”

Instead of showing airport security personnel identification, the CBP could confirm a passenger’s identity and flight using facial recognition and matching it against the photo in the CBP segmented cloud, Wagner said.

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