Transportation Security Administration Administrator David Pekoske says that an operational evaluation of facial recognition technology being done by the agency is demonstrating that biometrics are better than a visual check of a person against their travel documents.

“And the effectiveness in our own testing for biometrics is higher than if you were just doing a visual check,” he says earlier this month at an annual security conference hosted by the Airports Council International-North America. “It just makes sense that it would.”

TSA is piloting facial recognition technology at a PreCheck trusted traveler lane at a security checkpoint at Los Angeles International Airport and the agency is working with Delta Air Lines to evaluate the technology at a security checkpoint at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

Pekoske says he wants to take advantage of the work Customs and Border Protection is doing with facial recognition at departure gates on departing international fights and adopt that technology for TSA’s purposes instead of doing its own research and development. CBP is evaluating facial recognition technology at a number of airports, and at least three airports, have committed to fully deploying the camera systems for departing international flights.

TSA is working “very closely with” CBP on the biometric technology, Pekoske says, adding he’s told CBP Chief Kevin McAleenan, “I just want to adopt what you have so that we can be consistent across federal agencies and that I can put this in place a lot faster.”

CBP is also transforming the arrivals process for foreign nationals coming to the U.S. by air by using facial recognition to verify the identities of travelers. Currently, CBP uses fingerprints to verify the identities of foreign nationals arriving to the U.S. by air.

Like CBP, TSA also wants to use partnerships with aviation stakeholders to be able to cost-effectively scale up the biometric technology at airports. CBP is relying on buy-in from airlines and airports to purchase the camera systems and related infrastructure and software for use at departure gates for biometric exit while the agency supplies the backend facial matching systems, called the Traveler Verification Service (TVS).

TSA earlier in October released its first Biometric Roadmap, laying out the goals for its vision to introduce biometrics into its security processes. The agency is focusing on facial recognition and the initial goal is to automate the travel document process. The second goal is to operationalize the technology for its PreCheck trusted travelers.

Pekoske says that 2019 will be the fifth year since the PreCheck program began. Travelers that participate in PreCheck submit their fingerprints for purposes of background checks as part of the enrollment process. Travelers that are approved for the program get PreCheck privileges for five years before having to re-enroll. Pekoske says that next year he expects that capturing facial images of enrollees will become part of the enrollment process as well.

The CAT Solution

While TSA continues and expands its evaluation of facial recognition technology, the agency is also conducting operational tests of Credential Authentication Technology (CAT), which automatically validates the authenticity of travellers’ documents that are presented to the Travel Document Checker just prior to entering security checkpoint lanes at airports. The CAT technology also displays for the TSA Officer a person’s name, date of birth, gender and facial image, and checks against the agency’s Secure Flight database that is used to determine the risk status of a passenger.

Once CAT is deployed, passengers won’t need to display their boarding passes to the Travel Document Checker because their flight information will also be on the screen, Pekoske says.

This will “improve the accuracy of our identify verification at the checkpoint, even without biometrics,” and “additionally, it will also prevent any boarding pass fraud,” he says.

TSA reported in late October that the use of CAT technology at Portland International Airport in Oregon confirmed that a driver’s license presented to the Travel Document Checker was fraudulent. The CAT systems are being evaluated at 13 airports and this is the first time the technology flagged a fake ID.

“This case demonstrates the value of our new technology,” Pekoske says.

TSA also said that at around the same time the CAT system alerted on the fake ID, TSA officers in checked baggage operations discovered fake IDs, credit cards and equipment used to make fraudulent documents in the traveler’s luggage.

Pekoske also says that TSA has tested, and will continue to do so, augmenting the CAT system with biometric authentication.

 “Same machine with biometric capture rather than credential capture,” he said.

TSA has requested funding for CAT purchases in fiscal year 2019 and beyond, Pekoske said.