Facial recognition will soon become the norm for international and domestic flights for visa holders. Customs and Border Protection agents have been testing facial recognition systems at Dulles Airport in 2015. The tests were later conducted at New York’s JFK Airport in 2016. Check-in-kiosks with face reading systems will be set up soon in Ottawa International Airport while similar systems are being set up by the British Airways at Heathrow Airport in London.
The systems in place compare faces captured during security screening with a separate capture at the boarding gate. The plan christened the “Biometric Exit” aims at using facial scanning systems for the identification of visa holders as they travel through a given airport or at customs for both international and domestic flights. Passenger’s photos will be taken before boarding. These photos will then be compared to the passport-style photos provided during visa application. Failure of matching photos will be a likely indicator that one entered the country illegally.
The system which is being advanced by President Trump’s administration and is still under its pilot stage with tests on a single flight from Atlanta to Tokyo being carried out. Larry Panetta, a US customs and Border Protection official who supervised the airport division of the project applauded the facial recognition system citing it to be more efficient than other biometric systems. “Facial recognition is the path forward we’re working on,” Larry said. “We currently have everyone’s photo, so we don’t need to do any sort of enrollment. We have access to the Department of State records so we have photos of US Citizens, we have visa photos, we have photos of people when they cross into the US and their biometrics are captured into DHS biometric database.”
For decades, the plan for a Biometric Exit has been the talk but it is only until recently that facial recognition seems to have come out as the preferred choice. Other choices for the Biometric systems had been suggested including iris scanners and fingerprint based biometric systems. However, during the pilot tests, facial recognition systems became a clear favorite for the Customs and Border Protection agents. The main advantage of facial recognition is that it will provide the CBP agents biometric proof that a given visitor to the US has left the country. Furthermore, the CBP agents already have a database with the photos of all visa holders hence no mass enrollment is required as would be the case for other biometric systems.
The system will also be used for security screening tests as the system is to be shared with more agencies such as the TSA. The facial recognition system has raised several civil rights concerns which the concerned agencies are yet to conclusively respond to. These questions are mainly centered on the privacy of the passengers due to the fact that government agencies such as the FBI have previously made facial recognition a powerful yet controversial tool for tracking criminals. Alvaro Bedoya, a facial recognition expert on Privacy and Technology at Georgetown Law’s Center said, “Right now, other than the no-fly list, you do not have law enforcement checks on who can fly. But once you take that high-quality photograph, why not run it against the FBI database?
Why not run it against state databases of people with outstanding warrants? Suddenly you’re moving from this world in which you’re just verifying identity to another world where the act of flying is cause for a law enforcement search.” The CBP has however not revealed anything with regards to plans to integrating the facial recognition system with the FBI. Racial bias has also been cited as a major concern by facial recognition systems critics. This concern is based on the fact that the American facial scanning systems are typically trained using datasets of mostly white subjects.
This would lead to a higher error rate when scanning faces of people from other regions. A study conducted by the FBI indicated that the common US algorithms used for facial recognition were 5 to 10% less accurate when the subjects being scanned were of an African-American descent. If such a bias is not corrected, there could arise serious civil rights issue.
Clearly, the facial recognition system has its merits and demerit. However, it is worth noting that such technology would indeed help improve the efficiency of airports.
What would happen if the racial bias inherent in the system’s algorithms is not corrected?
Do you feel safe with these systems in place?