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Partnerships Will Help CBP Get Over Biometric Facial Comparison’s Remaining Hurdles, Sabatino Says

Implementation expected to rise through 2022 and 2023 as the pandemic significantly drives a vision of touchless curb-to-gate travel.

Trying to implement facial recognition technology at land borders to identify faces inside vehicles has been a challenge due to external factors, but a top Customs and Border Protection official expressed confidence that partnerships with industry will address those hurdles and find solutions.

Deputy Executive Assistant Commissioner Diane Sabatino in CBP‘s Office of Field Operations told a media roundtable Wednesday that years of testing have demonstrated that biometric facial comparison technology is secure and cost-effective. The technology has been implemented at 32 airports, providing not just a seamless boarding experience but a touchless identity verification process when especially needed during the pandemic.

Travelers pause for a photo that is compared to flight manifest photos that have already been provided via the traveler’s government-issued identification documents.

Use of the technology in the maritime sector is expanding through partnerships with cruise lines, simplifying the debarkation process at 13 seaports. “When travelers depart the cruise ship they simply take a photo to verify their identity,” Sabatino said.

Biometric facial comparison technology is continuing to make progress at land borders, with implementation at nearly all southern border crossings and the northern border nearly complete.

A pilot at the Anzalduas Port of Entry has been evaluating how the technology can capture a moving match: faces inside a vehicle. That is “still a work in progress,” Sabatino said, as “vehicle lanes are certainly the most challenging environment to capture a photo.” Those challenges have included the sun’s glare on windshields and things affixed to the windshield that obscure or distort the camera’s view.

“Working with industry is what’s going to get us over the final hurdle here,” she said, emphasizing that it’s “not a mismatch issue.”

Sabatino stressed the importance of educating the public about the technology to gain and maintain public confidence in the process. While adding a layer of security to the process and protecting identity, she said, biometric facial comparison speeds up the travel experience and helps mitigate the risk of pathogen transmission; TSA and CBP are exploring how both agencies can introduce facial biometrics from curb to gate.

“We are always looking to expand and work with additional partners as new technology is deployed,” Sabatino said, noting that stakeholders including airlines “see value in partnering with us.”

“There are certainly legitimate questions being raised about privacy data and security,” she said, adding that these questions “need to be addressed to maintain confidence.” That includes misinformation entwining the facial comparison technology with surveillance.

“Security was baked in from the beginning — it was not an afterthought,” the CBP official added. The agency has been working with the National Institute of Standards and Technology to refine and secure the process, and CBP has published more than 10 privacy- impact assessments on all aspects gathering, storage, use, retention, and eventual deletion of domestic traveler images while photos of foreign travelers are stored in a secure DHS database.

“We agree appropriate safeguards must be in place before it’s deployed,” Sabatino said. “…We welcome the scrutiny, welcome challenging of the process because it helps us be as transparent as possible” with “how we define the program, how we use the program, and ultimately what we do with the data.”

CBP conducts audits as part of the program to ensure partners are acting in a responsible manner.

“There is a lot we do in terms of engagement with the privacy community,” Executive Director for Admissibility and Passenger Programs Matt Davies at the Office of Field Operations said.

Even if there was to be a mismatch or someone decides to opt out, he noted, screening simply reverts back to manual review by an officer, who still makes the final decision using technology as a tool.

By the end of April all trusted traveler programs are expected to hit the 10 million participant mark.

New biometric facial comparison equipment is being tested at Los Angeles International Airport that has speeded up the process by 60 percent, eliminating the receipt generated by the kiosk to make it a fully touchless process. Davies said expand use of that equipment is expected in other airports by the end of the year.

Sabatino said that biometric exit is “an ongoing process” with travel industry partners, expressing confidence that implementation will rise through 2022 and 2023 as the pandemic significantly drives a vision of touchless curb-to-gate travel. “Now we see our industry stakeholders incorporating facial biometrics into their own processes,” she said.

Successful facial comparison match rates range from 97-99 percent depending on the environment — particularly the land border where the issue is not necessarily the algorithm itself but environmental factors. CBP will continue to “work with partners to find the right solution for that environment.”

“We do believe facial biometric technology is a critical tool” for the border security mission while enhancing travelers’ experience, Sabatino said.

Bridget Johnson
Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a terrorism analyst and security consultant with a specialty in online open-source extremist propaganda, incitement, recruitment, and training. She hosts and presents in Homeland Security Today law enforcement training webinars studying a range of counterterrorism topics including conspiracy theory extremism, complex coordinated attacks, critical infrastructure attacks, arson terrorism, drone and venue threats, anti-Semitism and white supremacists, anti-government extremism, and WMD threats. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15 and a private investigator. Bridget is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, New York Observer, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera, BBC and SiriusXM.

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