Several years after going all in on using facial recognition technology to verify the identities of persons arriving to and departing from the U.S., Customs and Border Protection has made steady progress in deploying the technology although some areas remain a challenge.

Currently, more than 99 percent of travelers entering the U.S. at 205 ports of entry have their identification confirmed through facial comparison technology, Diane Sabatino, deputy executive assistant commissioner for CBP’s Office of Field Operations, said during a virtual media roundtable on Wednesday. That program is called Simplified Arrival and was accelerated with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, she said.

Simplified Arrival is deployed at 153 pedestrian lanes at U.S. land ports, with “virtually all” travelers entering the U.S. along the southwest border using the biometric facial comparison technology and CBP is “nearly finished” rolling out the program along the northern border, Sabatino said. The 153 lanes represent about 98 percent of the ports of entry along both borders, she said.

CBP is operating under a congressional mandate to use biometrics to verify the identities of foreign nationals entering and exiting the U.S. at all ports of entry. U.S. citizens may opt-out of using the biometrics in favor of the traditional manual travel document checks performed by CBP officers.

Beginning in 2004, CBP relied on fingerprint checks to identify foreign nationals arriving at U.S. airports, and in some cases other ports of entry. At airports, CBP still uses fingerprint checks to identify foreign national arriving to the U.S. for the first time. In subsequent visits, the agency uses facial comparison technology to identify these travelers.

Late in the administration of former President Obama, CBP began its move toward adopting facial comparison technology after a number of evaluations showed the technology to be accurate, and quick and easy to use by the traveling public. Since then, the facial recognition algorithm used by CBP has shown to be about 98 percent accurate.

The exit component of CBP’s Biometric Entry Exit program has been more challenging to implement due to the fact that the agency relies on its air travel industry stakeholders to pay for the camera equipment used at airport exit gates. To date, the exit technology is deployed at 32 airports.

Rollout of biometric facial comparison technology at airports for verifying the identity of travelers leaving the U.S. was slowed by the COVID-19 pandemic, but Sabatino said that stakeholders realize the benefit of the technology because it helps enable a touchless passenger journey through the airport, which promotes health and safety. She expects more airports and airlines to begin deploying the camera technology in 2022 and 2023.

While airports and airlines deploy the camera systems that capture a person’s face photo at the departure gate for an international flight, CBP supplies the backend infrastructure, including the facial matching algorithm. CBP currently uses an algorithm supplied by NEC Corp.

Sabatino said the agency has no plans currently to host a competition to replace its NEC algorithms, which is highly ranked in government testing for accuracy, but added that CBP continues to review its options.

Another challenge for rolling out facial comparison technology is related to capturing and matching photos of people in personally owned vehicles that are moving toward a checkpoint at a land border crossing. Last September, CBP began a 120-day pilot of facial comparison technology at the Anzalduas port of entry in Texas.

That pilot has been completed and CBP is now evaluating the results, Sabatino said. When the camera technology was able to obtain a photo of an occupant inside a vehicle, the matching algorithm scored high when there were usable images, she said.

Early on in the pilot, the camera technology was only able to capture a photo of people inside a vehicle about 50 percent of the time due to issues such as glare or dirt on the windshield, Sabatino said.

The ultimate solution, and there may be more than one for using facial recognition technology to identify persons inside of vehicles, can’t slow travel or impede commerce, she said.

CBP has also rolled out facial comparison technology at 13 seaports, including the three largest passenger cruise lines, which are in Florida, she said.

Since September 2018, more than 138 million travelers have been processed using the biometric facial comparison technology, with more than 1,200 impostors having been caught, Sabatino said.