CBP Biometric Exit lead John Wagner a finalist for U.S. government award

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Deputy Executive Assistant Commissioner John P. Wagner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Office of Field Operations has been named a finalist for the 2019 Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medal in the National Security and International Affairs category for his roll in the government’s rollout of biometric facial recognition at major airports in the country.

Wagner is credited with putting a languishing congressionally mandated project back on track by building a coalition with airlines and airport authorities, according to the official announcement.

“John has turned this mandate into something that will absolutely change the face of air travel,” comments CBP Deputy Executive Director Daniel Tanciar.

The awards, known popularly as “Sammies,” are considered “the Oscars” of American government service.

In an interview with Federal News Network’s Federal Drive, Wagner said that facial matching algorithms have improved such that the technology itself was not the main challenge in getting CBP’s Biometric Exit trials going. “It was more how do you integrate that into what already goes on at the airport, instead of creating, say, another layer or requirements.”

Earlier attempts had struggled to make the biometrics use fit CBP’s operational needs. Wagner, who led development of the Global Entry system which launched in 2008, changed the approach to build a flight-specific photo gallery using airlines’ flight manifests.

“DHS struggled with coming up with an approach that wouldn’t create gridlock at the airports, or at seaports or the land border,” Wagner says. “My office took this project on a couple of years ago and we sat down with the stakeholders and looked at where everyone was going as far as their own motivation and modernization plans and their own challenges, and we devised a solution that really tried to meet everyone’s requirements. We like to say we’re solving an incredibly complex security challenge by focusing on the traveler experience.”

CBP has reportedly achieved facial match rates between 98 and 99 percent while processing more than 13 million travellers since the summer of 2017. The program is currently in testing at 15 airports for international arrivals, and 17 airports for international departures. The program is expected to process nearly all air passengers departing the country within four years.

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