Image: Óscar Matamora

APEX Insight: Airlines and airports are mulling over the possibility of biometrics in hopes of streamlining operations. But are travelers ready to volunteer their most personal data?

President Donald Trump’s original executive order barring foreign nationals from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States dominated headlines in 2017. Though the travel ban received the bulk of the attention, section 7 of the order, which called for “expedited completion of the Biometric Entry-Exit Tracking System,” by comparison, flew under the radar. But a biometric exit system has the potential to completely upend the travel experience for both foreigners and US citizens at American airports – some say for the better and others, for the worse. Its proponents claim it will improve border security and minimize documentation for travelers to show at the airport, while critics worry about privacy implications and the risk of putting a computer in charge of verifying someone’s identity.

Biometric Exit: A Brief History

Many governments use outgoing border control to determine who is entering and exiting the country. Until recently, that’s not how it worked in the US. “Airports in the United States weren’t designed to accommodate an exit process,” explains John Wagner, deputy assistant commissioner at US Customs and Border Protection (CBP). “In some ways, we’re trying to replicate a lot of what the rest of the world has been doing for many years, but we are trying to do it in an automated fashion that will be quick and efficient.”

Instead of setting up checkpoints that take up valuable airport real estate, automatic processing using biometric technology could be applied at any point in the traveler’s journey, be it at check-in or at the gate. For CBP, facial biometrics is the way forward. It’s cost-effective, and thanks to the advent of e-passports, there is already a stockpile of images government agencies can use to determine a person’s identity, Wagner says. In a smartphone-obsessed world, it’s also the least intrusive.

“Airports in the United States weren’t designed to accommodate an exit process.” – John Wagner, US Customs and Border Protection

CBP’s facial recognition initiative was touted by APEX CEO Joe Leader as being a better alternative to Trump’s electronic ban, which if expanded, he said, would “damage personal freedoms integral to international air travel.”

The US has been collecting international visitors’ fingerprints and facial scans since the mid-1990s, explains Sean Farrell, head of Portfolio Management, Government Solutions, SITA, which provides IT and communication solutions, including self-service kiosks, to many of the world’s airports. Capturing outbound biometrics that can be matched to the data collected upon entry allows the US government to determine whether visitors have overstayed their visas, he adds.

“It’s about becoming a document-free process.” – Sean Farrell, SITA

Trump’s executive order isn’t the first time a biometric entry-exit tracking system has been mandated. It was first signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1996, and was a key suggestion in the 9/11 Commission’s 2004 report. Congress has passed seven different laws requiring entry-exit screenings, but high cost, inadequate technology and airlines’ refusal to collect and process biometric data from travelers leaving the US resulted in delay after delay. Such impediments seem to have fallen to the wayside: Congress has pledged $1 billion toward entry-exit over the next 10 years; the technology has made great strides since the idea was first legislated more than two decades ago; and airlines are getting on board. Automated facial recognition technology at passport control is already in use at Tokyo’s Haneda and Narita international airports, and trials are underway at other airports around the world, including Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, and Brisbane Airport in Australia. SITA is also working on end-to-end processing at Hamad International Airport, where biometric data is captured at security and then verified at boarding.

The Future Is Now

In June, CBP partnered with SITA and JetBlue to offer travelers flying between Boston’s Logan and Aruba’s Queen Beatrix international airports the opportunity to try biometric boarding. Passengers get their photo snapped at the boarding gate, and seconds later, without having to show their boarding pass or passport, receive confirmation to board. Simple, right? What’s actually happening behind the scenes is more complex. For every flight, CBPculls images from the flight manifest provided by the airline, passports, visas, immigration papers or photos already in its database. When a passenger has his or her photo taken, the facial recognition algorithm matches the live photo with what’s in the database and returns a yay or nay to proceed with boarding.

“You will … drop off your bags, look into a camera or have your irises scanned … It’s going to be more self-service.” –  Sean Farrell, SITA

Delta Air Lines also launched some biometric trials in the summer. Sky Miles members at Reagan National Airport were able to access the Sky Club lounge, check a bag and board their flight using fingerprints as ID. And similar to the JetBlue experiment, in partnership with CBP, travelers at Hartsfield-Jackson and John F. Kennedy international airports were able to pass through facial recognition gates before gaining access to the boarding area. Pointing to the JetBlue and Delta examples, Farrell and Wagner explain that biometric processing can permeate the entire passenger experience. “It’s about becoming a document-free process,” Farrell says. “As this type of technology becomes more ubiquitous, you will have this experience throughout the entire airport. You will walk into the airport, drop off your bags, look into a camera or have your irises scanned. You will do the same at security and at boarding. It’s going to be a lot more self-service, which passengers generally like; it’s going to be much simpler and faster.”

Image: Óscar Matamora

Surveillance State

Under the entry-exit legislation, only foreign nationals are subject to biometric screening. But to identify foreign nationals, American citizens would have to provide their biometrics, too. The biometric data of American citizens would be discarded, Wagner says, while the data of foreign nationals, which CBP has no legal obligation to discard, could be kept for future reference. But this explanation hasn’t assuaged the worries of privacy advocates. “We’re just skeptical that these applications are going to remain confined to the uses they are being talked about today,” Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst with the Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), says. Though Stanley agrees that every country has the right to know who is crossing its borders, the ACLU worries that biometric identification will normalize powerful surveillance technologies. He can envision face templates being collected to track a person’s movement beyond the airport. Best practices, in his opinion, would mean discarding – and not repurposing – unnecessary data.

Before facial recognition can facilitate existing airport processes, Wagner says, there are privacy issues that need to be worked out. He asserts that CBP works closely with a privacy officer to ensure the collection, storage and sharing of data is consistent with legislation. However, Stanley thinks biometric processing has its flaws: “It seems like a silly use of technology with a high error rate.” He points to studies that find facial recognition technologies that are not blind to racial bias. According to a report from Georgetown University’s Center on Privacy and Technology, African-Americans, women and younger subjects are more likely to be falsely rejected by biometric systems than older Caucasian males. The report also revealed that some algorithms contain biases based on where they were developed. For example, a facial recognition algorithm devised in East Asia might better identify East Asians over Caucasians.

“It seems like a silly use of technology with a high error rate.” – Jay Stanley, American Civil Liberties Union

Facial recognition software isn’t perfect, but it is extremely accurate, Farrell says. “You would see about a 97 percent success rate of matching a person’s live biometrics [the photo snapped on-site] against their previously captured biometrics in a database … It’s more accurate than trying to verify someone against their passport given the use of fraudulent documents.” Wagner adds, “At the end of the day, it’s a human being that’s going to be using other factors, or the totality of the situation, to make a [decision]. Really the technology just advises us: ‘Does the algorithm think the person is the person in the document?’”

Where Next?

Over the next 18 months, Farrell thinks we’ll start to see active proofs of concept come into play. It’s clearly the direction that all airports, not just those in the United States, are headed. New terminals are being built with biometric technology in mind. At Singapore’s Changi Airport, Terminal 4, which is expected to open at the end of 2017, will be equipped with multiple biometric capabilities, from iris scanning to facial recognition to fingerprinting. Farrell warns, however, that for biometric technology to fulfill its potential, it can’t be an afterthought to an existing process. It would be redundant, he says, to scan a barcode at boarding and also have your facial biometrics captured. “That would just make the process longer, not simpler.”

“Face Value” was originally published in the 7.4 September/October issue of APEX Experience magazine.