As Customs and Border Protections (CBP) forges ahead on meeting Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson’s directive to begin deploying in 2018 a solution to biometrically verify the identities of foreign nationals leaving the United States by airplane, the biggest issue the agency is tackling now is understanding the backend infrastructure requirements this entails, according to a CBP official.

CBP currently isn’t ready to support the deployment of a biometric air exit solution nor is it ready to support the larger goal of transforming the end-to-end traveler experience with a more integrated enterprise biometric entry and exit solution but ongoing pilot programs and studies will help in determining where the backend information technology (IT) investments need to be made, Patricia Cashin, a program manager within the agency’s Office of Entry/Exit Transformation, says Oct. 20 at the Department of Homeland Security’s Strategic Industry Conversation.

She says the infrastructure will have to work with public and private stakeholders.

“So our focus is determining what necessary investments we need to make in our IT infrastructure to support this public private infrastructure, interfaces we need to develop, and we have to upgrade and expand our network communication and data storage capabilities to support what we need to do because the biometrics obviously take up more bandwidth and we’re not ready to support that yet,” Cashin says. “So we’re trying to determine what our requirements are and how that will impact our IT infrastructure and what we need to invest in to support that.”

She also says that CBP needs to be able to do real-time matching of biometrics.

Cashin says the goal for a deployed biometric air solution will be to do so in partnership with air travel stakeholders and that transforms the overall traveler experience “so we’re all in this together. It’s not just a CBP initiative. And our IT infrastructure will support more than just CBP.”

Congress mandated that the government use biometrics to identify foreign travelers entering and departing the U.S. Fingerprints are currently collected and matched against the passports of foreign nationals arriving to the U.S. but the biometric exit component of the mandate has proven difficult to crack. Johnson earlier this year directed CBP to initiate biometric air exit deployments in 2018.

Cashin says that “we anticipate meeting our mandate in 2018.”

Eventually CBP plans to deploy biometric exit solutions in the land and seaport environments.

CBP has been running a number of pilot projects this year at airports and land ports of entry to assess how biometrics could be used in exit scenarios and to transform the entry processes. Fingerprints are currently the mode used to verify identities upon entering the country although CBP is leaning toward face matching for air exit deployments, at least to begin with.

The data being collected from these pilots is being used to better understand what the infrastructure requirements are, Cashin says.

CBP is currently using facial recognition technology on one flight a day departing from Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport to test operating concepts for biometric air exit solutions and to help understand infrastructure needs. Cashin says this test “has been very successful.” This and other tests are leading to the “big air exit program, she says.

The agency is expected to roll out a more robust pilot project of biometric air exit solutions in 2017 as it heads towards a 2018 deployment.

In the future CBP plans to establish a “model or test environment” to demonstrate our biometric exit vision with the integration of technologies and experiments,” Cashin says. This will give industry opportunities to participate, she says, adding that this effort “will also include a procurement ability to continue to explore integration of promising technologies that are brought to us by our industry partners.”

One of CBP’s ongoing pilot projects is the Facial Comparison Test at Dulles and John F. Kennedy International Airports involving one-to-once comparisons of the facial images of U.S. travelers and select foreign nationals against the digital photo stored on the computer chip of their respective travel documents. Cashin says these tests have provided the agency with more data around facial recognition technology, noting that “we’ve changed our algorithm up.”

For the tests at Dulles and JFK once the facial comparison is complete, a match confidence score is provided to the CBP officer manning the customs entry desk. It’s a tool to help the officer identify an individual. If the confidence score is low, another photo is taken and compared with the digitally stored image, Cashin says.

If the score remains low then the traveler is sent to a secondary screening area for further inspection, Cashin says.