Feds Inch Toward Biometric Tracking: Install System at D.C. Airport

Dulles to pilot facial-recognition program, critics hammer slow pace of implementation

U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials have rolled out a pilot program at Washington Dulles International Program to test a biometric exit system for tracking foreign travelers.

It is the latest step toward a system the government has been working on for years to keep better track of people who enter and leave the country.

“CBP has been working closely with airline and airport stakeholders to test biometric exit technology and as a result has developed a viable exit solution based on facial recognition,” Acting Commissioner Kevin McAleenan said in a prepared statement. “This process, now being deployed to Washington Dulles International Airport, enhances our security while continuing to facilitate legitimate travel.”

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Customs officials said they plan to roll out the technology at other airports this summer.

“It’s been piloted to death already. It seems to be moving at a snail’s pace.”

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The Dulles program will use facial recognition on a single daily flight from the United States to Dubai. The system matches people’s faces with photographs on travel documents to ensure that impostors are not using other people’s passports. If the photo at boarding is matched to a U.S. citizen, that traveler is automatically determined to be “out of of scope” for the program. The agency then will keep the photos of U.S. citizens for only a short time before discarding them.

The test program follows a pilot program conducted last summer at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. The test applied to a daily flight from the United States to Japan.

Congress has mandated the Department of Homeland Security to record the arrival and departure of non-U.S. citizens by collecting biometrics. The agency established procedures based on digital fingerprints for certain foreign travelers in 2004.

Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, said it is unclear why the agency is moving so slowly.

“It’s been piloted to death already,” she said. “It seems to be moving at a snail’s pace … This is why so many people are losing patience over entry-exit.”

In addition to the Dulles test, JetBlue will team up with CBP this month to test a new self-boarding process on flights from Boston Logan International Airport to Queen Beatrix International Airport in Aruba. Customers who opt in can avoid showing boarding passes and instead look into a camera for a quick photo. Similar programs will take effect this summer, according to federal officials.

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In addition to flagging travelers whose faces do not match their travel document photos, border-security advocates hope the system one day could be used to keep track of foreign visitors who overstay their visas. The government reported last month that 628,799 foreigners in fiscal year 2016 stayed in the United States after their visas expired. Some 544,676 people are believed to still be in the U.S.

Vaughan said a sophisticated biometric tracking system one day could alert Homeland Security officials each time a visitor’s visa expires, along with a photograph and fingerprint information. That could help authorities locate and deport foreigners who do not have permission to remain. The key is to move beyond the testing phase, she said.

“It’s a good thing if they actually learn something. It seems like CBP keeps reinventing the wheel over and over again,” she said. “If this is the last stop, that’s great.”

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