Facial Recognition At US Airports Works 85% Of The Time: That Is Not Enough

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) had made considerable progress developing and implementing a biometric system to monitor and screen international travelers using facial recognition technology. However, it may not be enough.

CBP’s Biometric Entry-Exit Program conducted a pilot test at nine airports utilizing this technology to match only 85% of passengers’ identities at departure gates - well below the agency’s target of a 97% to 100% match rate, according to a new audit by the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Office of Inspector General.

CBP encountered operational challenges that limited biometric confirmation to only 85% of all passengers because of "poor network availability, a lack of dedicated staff, and compressed boarding times due to flight delays," the audit said.

The audit added, due to missing or poor quality digital images, that CBP could not consistently match individuals of specific age groups or nationalities. The biometric data obtained during the pilot test improved DHS’ ability to verify 105,000 foreign visitors from U.S. airports.

The low 85% biometric confirmation rate addresses questions as to whether CBP will meet its target to confirm all international departures at the top 20 U.S. airports by the fiscal year 2021.

Given the uncertainties mentioned in the audit, CBP must address a series of questions on how the program will be funded and staffed moving forward. With the lack of guidance from DHS, the full implementation of the entry-exit biometric system at airports across the country remains in question.

The Los Angeles Times said that Congress set aside up to $1 billion over a 10-year period from fees charged to foreign visitors to fund the creation of a biometric screening system.

The CBP processes more than 1 million travelers every day as they enter the U.S. at air, land, and sea ports of entry. The ability to hit the 97% to 100% match rate in pilot tests seems to be in question, at the moment. This gap in future security at airports is a major flaw if the program is rolled out prematurely. It could easily be exploited by terrorists, jeopardize national security, and or degrade the ability to enforce immigration laws.

The next pilot test is expected to complete a 30-day test in October at Los Angeles International Airport. If the match rate continues to underperform the agency's target of 97% to 100%, the entire program could be in trouble.