Customs and Border Protection (CBP) in June is slated to begin a robust round of technical demonstrations of its planned solution to better confirm the identities of travelers departing the United States by air, Kevin McAleenan, the acting commissioner of the agency, said on Monday.

The expanded tests of the biometric exit solution will roll out at departure gates of select airports about every two weeks from June 1 through September, McAleenan said at connect:ID, an annual identity solutions conference. McAleenan is President Donald Trump’s nominee to be commissioner of CBP.

Kevin McAleenan, acting commissioner of Customs and Border Protection. Photo: CBP
Kevin McAleenan, acting commissioner of Customs and Border Protection. Photo: CBP

The upcoming technical demonstrations, which essentially were previewed last week by John Wagner, deputy executive assistant commissioner for CBP’s Office of Field Operations, will be based on a nearly year-old pilot demonstration of facial recognition technology being used to confirm the identity of passengers boarding a single international flight daily from Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport (Defense Daily, April 25).

In the Atlanta pilot the passenger manifest for the flight is localized on a tablet computer. The upcoming expansion of the pilot testing will connect the facial recognition to a cloud computing environment for real-time matching and confirmation of travelers at the departure gates, McAleenan said.

The Atlanta pilot was crucial to CBP moving forward with this “next level” of the biometric exit program, he said.

The ongoing testing in Atlanta is demonstrating the ability to biometrically confirm the identity of travelers “within the airline’s boarding procedures and without disrupting the process,” McAleenan said. “This was a defining moment in our biometric exit strategy. Quite simply, to accomplish this mission in an environment that is extremely sensitive to change with the addition of new layers we are confident that innovation and partnerships are the essential components to addressing the biometric exit challenge.”

The upcoming demonstrations will also show airlines, airports and travelers how the exit solution is going to work, he said.

McAleenan highlighted that the exit system has to integrate into the larger travel process with stakeholders, existing business processes and infrastructure, adding that the agency also doesn’t want passengers to have to change their behavior at the departure gate before heading down the jetway to an aircraft.

CBP, through facial recognition and comparison tests in Atlanta, Washington Dulles International Airport, and John F. Kennedy International airport, and with testing last year at land port of entry between the U.S. and Mexico, that facial recognition appears to be the easiest and most user friendly biometric to use for its exit system.

Currently exit checks are done biographically, a process whereby airlines submit a passenger’s information to CBP for a check before a plane departs. Congress has mandated multiple times that biometric checks be added to the departure process to better guarantee that a foreign national departing the country is who he or she says they are.

CBP is working with its stakeholders, including airlines and airports, to broaden the application of the biometric technology that will be part of the exit system. The agency believes that the technology could possibly replace boarding passes and in some cases, passport checks.

The upcoming technical demonstrations will be rolled out to the major U.S. international airports. Under the Obama administration, CBP was tasked with rolling out a biometric exit system to major U.S. international airports by the end of 2018. The Trump administration directed CBP to accelerate those plans.

CBP currently checks fingerprints of foreign nationals arriving to the U.S. to ensure that the person entering the country is the same person that applied for a visa to travel to the U.S. CBP’s Wagner said last week that the agency is looking to retool that arrival process use facial recognition technology. He said a pilot test is planned for this year at an airport to use facial recognition to help verify the identities of arriving passengers.

Ultimately, Wagner said, the facial recognition capability could serve as the passport check and exit gate, allowing travelers to rapidly pass through the Customs process after arrival.

The biometric exist system is one of two major identity solutions efforts underway within the Department of Homeland Security. The other is the acquisition of a new biometric repository and matching system called Homeland Advanced Recognition Technology (HART). The multimodal biometric HART system will replace the fingerprint-based IDENT system.