Over the next two months Customs and Border Protection will begin testing face recognition technology to help identify travelers entering the U.S. on foot and inside vehicles as the agency begin to sort out how it will use face recognition at land ports of entry for people entering and departing the country.

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Cars line up at CBP’s inspection station at the San Ysidro, Calif., port of entry. Photo: CBP

In July, CBP will begin Phase One of its Biometric Pedestrian Travel evaluation by capturing the photos of individuals on the move as they approach an agency processing station as they enter the U.S. at the Nogales and San Luis, Ariz., ports of entry. Those photos will be automatically compared to the electronic photo stored on individual’s travel document for a one-to-one match, Matthew Schneider, director of CBP’s Traveler Compliance Division within the Entry/Exit office, said on Wednesday. As is the case now, the travel document will be presented to a CBP officer.

Beginning in 2018, CBP will initiate the second phase of its pedestrian biometric entry evaluations, which will entail using the photo of an individual captured as he or she approaches the processing station as the identity check and not require the person to present their travel document, Schneider told Defense Daily after his presentation at the Security Industry Association’s Government Summit in Washington, D.C.

In the first phase, the captured photos will be stored locally, but in Phase Two, the live photos will be checked against CBP’s Traveler Verification Service (TVS), a database the agency created for verifying the departure of travelers from the U.S. on international flights. The face image checks against the TVS are a one-to-many search.

Schneider said that in Phase Two CBP will also begin sorting out how it will populate the TVS for pedestrians entering the U.S. Compared to air and sea travel, where CBP typically has advanced information on travelers, this mostly isn’t the case with people crossing the land border at ports, he said, adding a challenge to this aspect of biometric entry and exit checks.

One way to get advanced data on travelers crossing at land ports may be to work with Canada and Mexico, Schneider told the audience.

In the third phase of the evaluation, which will also begin in 2018, CBP will add face recognition to the exit checks on people leaving the U.S.

CBP currently verifies the identity of all foreign nationals entering the U.S. at all ports of entry using fingerprints but is transitioning to face recognition for air arrivals because it is faster and easy to obtain images of travelers before they arrive at a processing desk. First time visitors to the U.S. will still have their identities checked via fingerprints but CBP will also obtain facial images of these travelers upon arrival.

Using biometrics to verify the identities of foreign nationals entering and leaving the U.S. is a recommendation of the 9/11 Commission. The biometric checks on departure help CBP determine that a person has left the country in accordance with the terms of their visas.

The pedestrian biometric checks will allow CBP to determine what is the best operating concept for an eventual full-scale deployment. The expected outcomes from the evaluation include streamlined processing of individuals, improved identification of persons of interest, feasibility of using face recognition for biometric entry and exit processing, and a reduction in the reporting gap between people entering the U.S. and departing, according to Schneider’s briefing slides.

This August, Schneider said CBP plans to begin a pilot of biometric checks of people inside their vehicles while moving at speed through the license plate reader area of a lane just prior to where an officer processes entries into the U.S. The readers will trigger the cameras, which will be in a position to capture driver and passenger facial images.

The test will show how effective the camera systems are at capturing images of vehicle occupants, he said. The evaluation will take place at the Port of Anzalduas, Texas.

Schneider said camera systems from two providers will be used in the evaluations. Unisys [UIS], which provides technical assistance to CBP for the TVS system and helps the agency manage biometric entry and exit evaluations, will assist on the vehicular project and is responsible for selecting the camera system providers.

Oak Ridge National Laboratory has developed a plenoptic camera system that can take images through vehicle windows, but Schneider said for the upcoming evaluation this system won’t be used.

The Biometrics Vehicle at Speed evaluation will eventually capture images for both entry and exit. Schneider said this evaluation is planned to last about one year.

This is really just setting the stage for further steps,” Schneider said. “This is not an end-to-end solution yet. It’s more, “How can we be effective at gathering identity from something that’s moving.”

Lessons learned from the vehicle pilot will inform decisions around port design, according to Schneider’s slides.

Schneider said CBP doesn’t know how much it will cost to implement face recognition checks at its land ports of entry. Currently, for biometric exit in the air environment, CBP expects airlines and airports to pay for the face recognition technology deployed at departure gates. In the case of the land ports, CBP owns the infrastructure.

“It’s on us and we’re stretched thin to begin with,” he said.