Facing Facts: Will Concerns About Biometrics Pose a Threat to Transportation Security?

Facial recognition technology has been responsible for numerous important law enforcement, border security and transportation security wins over the past few years, but some of the concerns that dogged the systems from the outset have not gone away. While most of the accuracy issues have improved, public concerns about unnecessary surveillance and profiling – which had reached a new level of acceptance in transportation applications – have recently resurfaced.

These concerns have now led three tech giants to pull out of the facial recognition market. First, IBM CEO Arvind Krishna told Congress that not only will the company not offer facial recognition products but that it “firmly opposes and will not condone uses of any technology, including facial recognition technology offered by other vendors, for mass surveillance, racial profiling, violations of basic human rights and freedoms, or any purpose which is not consistent with our values and Principles of Trust and Transparency.” Microsoft and Amazon have quickly followed suit by declaring they will not sell facial recognition technology to U.S. police departments. All three companies are calling on Congress to set regulations on the use of facial biometrics. So far, other companies supplying the U.S. police market, such as Japan’s NEC and Europe’s Gemalto (part of Thales) and Idemia have not commented.

We asked Tovah LaDier, Executive Director of the International Biometrics and Identity Association (IBIA) for her thoughts on these industry developments.

“IBM, Amazon, and Microsoft are indisputably technology goliaths but with little presence in identification technologies or facial recognition, as underscored that two have not submitted their algorithms to the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), a precondition to working for the federal government.

“It is disappointing that their exit statements seem to conflate facial recognition with mass surveillance and racial profiling, statements that have generated confusion and questions about other positive and beneficial uses of the facial recognition technology, including aviation, to combat human trafficking, and to find missing and exploited children. In fact, facial recognition is not surveillance and the use of facial recognition in aviation is completely different from its use in law enforcement, as detailed in this article, which was the arena of interest to big tech.”

National Views Vary

The Metropolitan Police (Met) in London, U.K. is using live facial recognition after running a series of 10 trials. The Met’s use of the technology has gone largely uncriticized, perhaps due to the transparency of its operations. The Met informs citizens online where they are going to use facial recognition before any deployment, publishes the results of each deployment on the Met website, provides information leaflets and places posters and signs in and around the area to make people aware the technology is being used, and makes officers available to talk to members of the public to help explain what’s happening and how the process works.

It is perhaps no surprise to learn that China is doubling down on facial biometrics and has recently implemented a new rule which requires facial scans for all mobile phone users registering new SIM cards. China likes biometrics for a variety of reasons, not least because it is a key component in its export markets with Chinese systems being deployed and considered by law enforcement and transportation authorities across the globe. In fact, IHS Markit reports that China was responsible for almost 50% of the world’s facial recognition business in 2018.

Meanwhile, the European Union – which Britain is in the process of leaving – is considering a ban on facial recognition technology in public areas. In the U.S., Seattle, Oakland, San Francisco, San Diego and Somerville have already issued bans.

What Does This Mean for Transportation and Border Security?

Public concerns surrounding facial biometrics are today largely focused on their use for law enforcement. Many travelers accept that biometric passports and checkpoints at airports are an important layer of security to keep them safe. They are less enamoured with the idea of being tracked while walking a couple of blocks to grab a coffee.

The concern from a transportation security perspective is that the kickback against facial recognition for law enforcement in cities and streets will spread to travel. Biometrics is such an inherent part of international travel infrastructure now that omitting it would likely cause widespread security and logistics issues.

In 2018, a SITA survey found that 77% of airports were looking to invest or further invest in biometric systems within the next five years. Many of those investments have taken place or are underway with more planned. And an Airline Passenger Experience Association (APEX) survey found that more than three-quarters (77.4%) of travelers expect to see increased adoption of “touchless” biometrics to verify passenger identity. Another survey, by the International Air Transport Association also found strong public support for biometrics.

A sudden lack of public acceptance now off the back of concerns regarding law enforcement profiling, could throw a rather large spanner in the works. Unfortunately, as is often the case nowadays, some people will read only a headline or listen to only part of a news broadcast, such as those regarding IBM, Microsoft and Amazon. It is worth noting that in the United States, U.S. citizens can opt in or out of facial biometrics programs used for transportation. With law enforcement applications however, there is no choice unless avoiding the areas deploying the technology which may not be feasible or possible.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has a Congressional mandate to biometrically record all foreign nationals who enter and exit the United States. A CBP spokesperson told Homeland Security Today that years of testing have demonstrated that biometric facial comparison technology is the most secure, efficient and cost-effective way to fulfill the Congressional mandate while protecting the privacy of all travelers. The use of facial biometrics also of course provides travelers with a hygienic, touchless process that modernizes air travel and is a vital tool for the aviation industry’s recovery.

Unlike some other law enforcement agencies, CBP uses biometric facial comparison technology only at specific times and locations where travelers are already required to present proof of identity. It is imperative that this message is conveyed to and understood by all travelers who may have reservations about using biometrics following the recent reports and industry withdrawals.

In a nutshell – longstanding laws and regulations require travelers to establish their identity when entering or departing the United States and at certain other places when planning to fly, such as the security checkpoint. CBP uses facial comparison technology simply to automate the document checks that are already required at all U.S. ports of entry.

The Added Value of Biometrics at Airports

Some airports, such as Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta already have completely biometric terminals thanks to work between the airport authority, CBP, and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). As well as providing security for travelers and staff, airport biometrics can improve the “passenger experience” which airports are very keen to do. For example, a traveler can check-in, access a club lounge, and board a plane just by looking into a camera.

Biometric facial recognition technology has also been proven to decrease aircraft boarding times. For example, airlines have reported that they have boarded travelers on A380 planes in 20 minutes through the biometric boarding process.

And in the era of pandemic and post-pandemic travel, airports will be keen to utilize as many contactless passenger processes as possible to provide seamless, secure and safe travel.

On June 9 for example, Denver International Airport formed a strategic partnership with Daon to develop contactless biometric solutions for deployment throughout the airport environment. The motivation is to explore how identity-based technologies can support touchless experiences, maximize physical distancing, and assist in the mitigation of health risks. The first pilot is expected to launch this summer.

Identification and Verification are not Surveillance

LaDier of IBIA outlined the differences between law enforcement use of facial recognition and transportation applications for Entry-Exit to and from the United States.

“In law enforcement, facial recognition is used to generate leads for investigation in much the same way as mugshots and eye witness statements to police provide leads. For this purpose, a photograph of an unknown person is run through the system to determine if that person is already in the database. When policy and jurisdiction law permits, internet searches may also be conducted. When agreements are in place, other systems, including some DMVs, will accept search requests, execute them as time permits on behalf of the requester, and return candidates as they deem appropriate. This is called identification, one to many (1:N) The system is set up to provide a gallery of potential matches. The process does not provide a ‘lights out’ match. Facial recognition is not yet ready for proof of identity. This gallery is then submitted to human review to determine which leads are appropriate for follow up.

“In Entry-Exit, the process is known as ‘verification’ or ‘authentication’. In this case, the person is in front of you and you want to verify this person is the one entitled to access by comparing it to the photo on file. In Entry-Exit, the database is small and is comprised of the people on the travel manifest. This is known as one-to-one (1:1) or to a small number.”

CBP uses a high-quality facial comparison algorithm, NEC-3, which shows virtually no measurable differential performance in results based on demographic factors, according to the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). To ensure higher accuracy rates, as well as efficient traveler processing, CBP compares traveler photos to a very small gallery of high-quality images that those travelers already provided to the U.S. government to obtain their passport or visa. CBP continually evaluates the performance of the NEC algorithm and is partnering with NIST to further enhance the facial comparison process.

CBP combines the use of the NEC-3 algorithm with highly trained CBP officers who are skilled at verifying the authenticity of travel documents to ensure the highest possible accuracy. If a traveler opts out of the biometric facial comparison process or cannot be matched by the Traveler Verification Service, then a CBP officer or airline representative will manually inspect the traveler’s passport or identity document, consistent with longstanding procedures.

TSA uses biometrics at airports to automate identity verification for all passengers, not for law enforcement or immigration enforcement purposes. TSA publicly states that it does not tolerate racial profiling, adding that “profiling is not an effective way to perform security screening”.

Several statutes and regulations require federal agencies to record foreign nationals who enter and exit the United States – and these include the use of biometrics. The 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act; the 2002 Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act; the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004; and the Implementing Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act of 2007 all cover the use of biometrics for transportation security purposes.

As LaDier explained, “facial recognition is not synonymous with surveillance”. She says this is a misconception based on hypothetical statements, not facts. “Video surveillance cameras are in wide use today and capture entire scenes for later playback if needed. Facial recognition, on the other hand, is only about the identification of a human face and the ability to match it to a single known facial image,” LaDier said, adding that facial matching is only useful to match against a known gallery of quality facial images to those submitted to it for matching. “There is no database of all faces so an unknown individual will still remain anonymous after a non-match.”

CBP told us it is committed to its privacy obligations and has taken steps to protect the privacy of all travelers, including using strong technical security safeguards and limiting the amount of personally identifiable information used in the biometric facial comparison process. Further, CBP deletes photos of U.S. citizens within 12 hours of matching the photo to a U.S. citizenship document and does not retain photos of U.S. citizens during this process. The photos of foreign nationals are encrypted and stored in a secure Department of Homeland Security system consistent with existing laws and regulations.

Transportation operators, TSA and CBP use biometric facial recognition technology simply to automate a document check that is already required by statute. Transportation security depends on biometrics and it is important not to confuse this usage with the application of facial recognition technology in a public space or in a situation in which the presentation of identity documents is not required.

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Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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