Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is continuing to lean toward capturing facial photos of departing foreign nationals on international flights as the biometric of choice in its nascent program to help verify the departure of these individuals from the United States in accordance with their visas, an agency official said on Thursday.

A pilot project earlier this year at a land port of entry in Southern California that involved multiple biometrics to monitor the entry and exit of pedestrians entering from Mexico and reentering that country showed that they were comfortable and use to having a photograph of their faces taken, Colleen Manaher, executive director for Planning, Program Analysis, and Evaluation within CBP’s Office of Field Operations, said at the Homeland Security Week conference hosted by IDGA.

Unidentified traveler submitting a fingerprint at a Customs and Border Protection workstation. Photo: CBP
Unidentified traveler submitting a fingerprint at a Customs and Border Protection workstation. Photo: CBP

Travelers crossing the border between Mexico and the U.S. at Otay Mesa “are not as savvy as airport travelers but clearly face was easy,” Manaher said. When it came to iris capture at the entry port, “they hesitated…they were a little afraid.” She added that people confuse iris image capture with retina scans and think “’you’re going to be zapping my eyeball.’”

“While I think iris is by far one of the most accurate in terms of biometrics in my opinion, face just seemed to be where travelers were fine,” Manaher said. “And I think that that has to inform going forward.”

Manaher said that people “love” having their picture taken, adding that they enjoy “selfies.”

Mike Hardin, deputy director of CBP’s Entry/Exit Transformation Office, told attendees that a report being prepared by a contractor is due soon on the results of the Otay Mesa pilot.

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson earlier this year directed CBP to begin implementing a biometric exit program in 2018 at U.S. airports for foreign nationals leaving the country. Congress has long mandated the use of a biometric exit program to complement the current biographic-based exit system that seeks to verify that foreign nationals have left the U.S. as scheduled under terms of their visas.

Ultimately, CBP and Congress want to roll out biometric exit processes at airports, land and seaports.

In addition to the Otay Mesa pilot, CBP is conducting other biometric pilots at several airports to test the feasibility, operating concepts, effectiveness and information technology infrastructure needs associated with implementing biometric exit solutions and reengineering the current biometric entry processes.

In Atlanta at Hartsfield Jackson International Airport CBP over the summer began a facial recognition pilot to check the departures of foreign nationals on one international flight per day. Manaher said that in the coming months CBP will be adding more flights and partners to the Atlanta biometric air exit pilot toward meeting the 2018 plan of implementing a biometric exit solution at one large airport.

CBP is also testing mobile fingerprinting devices to capture data on departing foreign nationals at a number of airports. Manaher said the BE Mobile pilot has resulted in identifying “bad guys” attempting to leave the U.S. by airplane.

CBP has been using Unisys [UIS] as its systems integrator for its various biometric pilots, taking advantage of an existing border security contract the company has. For a biometric exit program the agency is expected to open up a procurement to competition.

Manaher also said that biometrics, at least in the air environment, will become an enabler for CBP, other Department of Homeland Security components, and other stakeholders in improving the travelers’ experience from their homes to their final destinations and then home again. She said the same biometric information collected and used by one government agency could be used by another, such as the Transportation Security Administration, to move more efficiently through the airport and onto a plane.

Biometrics will allow the “air travel industry to transform itself,” Manaher said.

CBP is currently facing a “perfect storm” in which it is unlikely to be getting more staff despite the fact that more people and cargo are entering the U.S. every year. “Innovation” is the key to grappling with this challenge, she said.

In the next three, five, seven to 10 years CBP will transform “the way you arrive to the United States. It will be completely different.”