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US is decades from completing biometric exit scans, but Customs plays by its own rules

US is decades from completing biometric exit scans, but Customs plays by its own rules

Biometric systems in the U.S. federal government made news this month and as often is the case at that level, the news is mixed.

Sibling agencies – the Transportation Security Administration and Customs and Border Protection — reported on how they each are deploying and operating biometric identification systems.

The TSA’s expansion plans are hamstrung by inadequate funding, but a government examination of CBP found that the agency complies with facial recognition policies regarding international air travelers. (TSA news here. CBP here.)

Wednesday, TSA Administrator David Pekoske re-applied for his job as head of an organization responsible for the security of aviation, rail traffic, highways, ports and pipelines.

Having served in the post for five years, Pekoske was quick to tell senators asking about facial recognition that he needs more money to expand the TSA’s ability to perform comprehensive biometric checks of international travelers leaving the United States.

Right now, that task is assigned to CBP, he said. Ticking that box will have to wait until 2046 based on other priorities (such as x-ray equipment acquisition) and funding levels.

Pekoske reminded members of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee deliberating his confirmation hearing that fiscal year 2023’s capital investment budget is $100 million, a meager sum compared to the TSA’s vast responsibilities.

Ultimately, the matter was a blip during the event, which might portend more poor capital budgets. Senators were more interested in the status of TSA’s many employees, who are underpaid compared to others at like employment categories.

The other biometric news (which should not be news) out of Washington was the judgment of a government inspector general’s office that Customs and Border Patrol complies with facial recognition policies when identifying international travelers at airports.

Specifically, “CBP complied with its policies and procedures for resolving facial biometric discrepancies,” according to the report.

The inspector’s office, like CBP and TSA are part of the Department of Homeland Security, looked at all of the data generated by CBP officers who processed 51.1 million travelers from May 2019 to September 2021.

Officials were looking to see if, when using facial recognition systems at 238 international airports as part of the Simplified Arrival program, the agency followed its own rules.

If automated facial recognition one-to-many or one-to-one matches cannot be made an agent is required to usher the traveler on to a second inspection. Secondary examinations were done on 23,000 travelers during the period, based on mismatches.

An override mechanism available to CBP officers has been removed so that all mismatches of travelers 14 years and older are referred to secondary inspection. How often the removed policy was used is not stated in the report.

The inspector general also found that the agency has strengthened the performance of the facial recognition-based Simplified Arrival. Internal covert testing had been conducted from 2018 to 2019, for example.

The results of that investigation found a high compliance rate but agents “did not always identify the testers posing as imposters.” CBP updated its procedures to address the performance, according to the report.

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