The use of facial recognition technology to match travelers entering and exiting the U.S. is demonstrating results between 98 and 99 percent accuracy with the use of its facial recognition technology it is rolling out at airports nationwide to identify travelers entering and exiting the U.S., a Customs and Border Protection (CBP) official said on Monday.

Those accuracy rates are being obtained regardless of ethnicity or gender and the response times from when a traveler’s photo is taken until a response is generated is less than three seconds, John Wagner, deputy executive assistant commissioner for CBP’s Office of Field Operations, said at the annual Connect:ID conference in Washington, D.C.

“We’re not seeing noticeable biases based on gender or race or ethnicity,” Wagner said. “That’s based on our evaluation.”

John Wagner (left), deputy executive assistant administrator, CBP’s Office of Field Operations. Photo: CBP

CBP has been rolling out facial recognition evaluations and operations for the past two years at airline departure gates for international flights under a congressional mandate for biometric checks of foreign nationals leaving the U.S. in accordance with their visa term. The agency 15 or so years ago fulfilled a mandate for biometric checks of foreign nationals arriving to the U.S. to verify the identities of visa holders.

Fingerprint capture was the initial biometric process used for inbound travelers but CBP is transforming the process for facial recognition. Wagner said that the first time a foreign national visits the U.S. all 10 fingerprints are collected but on subsequent visits facial matching will be the predominant mode for a biometric check.

So far facial recognition is being used at 15 airports for entry checks and at 17 airports for exit checks. Within the next two years, CBP expects the facial recognition technology to be deployed at all U.S. airports and seaports for international travel, Wagner said.

CBP officers have caught five impostors at U.S. airports attempting to enter the illegally with U.S and other country’s passports, Wagner said.

For the implementation of the facial recognition technology for the biometric exit checks, airlines and airports are acquiring the front-end cameras and related integration to capture photos of departing travelers. The photos are matched against a backend database maintained and operated by CBP, called the Traveler Verification Service (TVS).

The TVS is made up of separate galleries for every outbound flight, limiting the matching of each traveler’s photo against others on the same flight.

Various companies are involved in the front-end systems, including Amadeus, IDEMIA, NEC, SITA, Vision-Box and others. NEC, which is based in Japan, is providing the facial matching technology that is part of the TVS.

The biometric exit checks are aimed at foreign nationals, per the congressional mandate, but because it’s difficult to segregate U.S. citizens from foreigners at the departure gate, airlines are collecting facial images of all departing passengers on international flights, although Americans can opt out. At the same time, CBP is using the biometric to verify the exit of a foreign national from the U.S. In some cases, the airlines are using the same system with the aid of the TVS to also check the identity of the traveler and do away with the need to present a boarding pass and passport.

It’s through this convenience factor for travelers, and other opportunities along the curb-to-gate experience such a facial recognition at the baggage drop or check-in, that CBP is bringing airlines and airports onboard with the biometric exit program.

CBP has used facial recognition on more than 16 million travelers to date in biometric entry, exit and pre-clearance operations.

In addition to the air environment, CBP is working with three cruise lines, and soon to be a fourth, to implement biometric exit based on facial recognition in the seaport environment. The agency has also been piloting the facial recognition technology in the land environment, first at two ports of entry and recently adding a third.

For the land port evaluations, CBP is matching a pedestrian’s photo against the travel documents they present. Through the facial recognition technology, CBP has caught 113 impostors so far attempting to enter the U.S. illegally.

“We’re trying to close this risk,” Wagner said.

CBP hopes to have facial recognition for entry rolled out at land ports within four years. Wagner said additional pilot evaluations are forthcoming and that the agency wants to move beyond the one-to-one matching against a person’s travel document to larger galleries for one-to-many searches to see how CBP can best create and size the databases at certain times.

CBP has also been evaluating camera technology to recognize occupants inside vehicles as they approach the Customs checkpoint. The initial evaluation went well, Wagner said. The agency plans to build on the first demonstration by using a camera from a different vendor.