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US customs agency finds its face biometrics program is meeting expectations


It seems it is all good news for the U.S. Traveler Verification Service following an evaluation of privacy policies and practices the service, which supports the government’s Biometric Entry-Exit Program.

Advocates of privacy rights and government oversight have kept a close eye on the program. They are watching for privacy violations, lack of transparency and bias, particularly in the face biometric. If the numbers are to be believed, biases in the system are “undetectable.”

It is important to note that the evaluation was from the Customs and Border Protection agency, a unit of the Department of Homeland Security, which includes the CBP and the verification service itself.

The service uses face comparison, or verification, algorithms. A traveler’s face is photographed at a port of entry or exit, and that image is compared to a collection of images that includes a photograph of the traveler from another government-issued document – usually a driving license.

The report, written by the CBP Privacy Office, says the service hits its marks across the board. Signage and messaging meet expectations but should be worked on to be better. The communications in airports is about what is happening with facial verification and why. It also needs to inform people that the process is voluntary for U.S. citizens and exempt non-citizens.

Travelers should be made clear about their privacy in terms of where the photo that the system records in the airport is deleted no later than 12 hours after being taken for U.S. citizens. The privacy office found that images are deleted according to that schedule.

The bias finding must be comforting for the government and for the industry generally. Face biometric algorithms have historically had less difficulty sorting white, middle-aged cis males than any other demographic. This is more true with facial recognition code, which performs one-to-many verification.

The privacy office found no detectable biases in the algorithm used by the CBP. It did not say who wrote the code, but some promotional images used in the past have clearly depicted NEC software.

Match rates are between 98.1 and 99.6 percent. There are “slightly higher match rates” for people between 26 years old and 65 years old. Women are .04 percent more likely to be matched than men.

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