Next February, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) expects to have the robust information technology network backbone ready so that it can scale to handle the ramp up of a biometric-based system that will track the exit of foreign nationals from the U.S. in accordance with their visas, an agency official said on Tuesday.

The Travel Verification System (TVS) is CBP’s cloud-based network system that is being used for its congressionally-mandated biometric exit system. The system will be ready in February to begin handling the larger number of transactions that will come with increased deployments and use of the exit system, Mike Hardin, the deputy director of the agency’s Entry/Exit Transformation Office, said at AFCEA’s Federal Identity Forum in Washington, D.C.

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

Currently CBP is evaluating its facial recognition-based exit system on select daily international flight at eight airports in the U.S. The number of airports and airlines participating in the pilots will slowly tick up and eventually more international flights will feature the biometric exit system, which involves automatic photo taking of each passenger on the select flights prior to entering the jetway to the plane. The captured photos are quickly compared—less than two seconds—against a gallery of photos of every passenger on that particular flight that is stored in the TVS.

Jeh Johnson, the former Homeland Security Secretary in the last three years of the Obama administration, directed CBP in early 2016 to begin moving aggressively toward biometric exit deployments at airports in the U.S. with international flights, with 2018 being the year for a more robust rollout. President Donald Trump earlier this year directed that the exit system be accelerated but so far it appears to be going along at about the pace Johnson ordered although industry officials said the new president’s focus on illegal immigration helped push CBP to move forward on TVS rather than wait for the same face matching capability to be incorporated into the Department of Homeland Security’s authoritative biometric database called IDENT.

While the exit system is aimed at helping the U.S. ferret out foreign nationals who have overstayed their visas, CBP plans to photograph everyone boarding an international flight and then discard photos within two weeks of U.S. citizens on the flights. Some privacy watchdog groups have raised concerns about matching photos of U.S. citizens.

How quickly CBP will ramp up the exit system deployments is largely dependent on the business model it is planning for the program. The agency will provide the TVS for the photo galleries, biometric matching and other transaction processing but it is expecting airports and airlines to pay for the front end, which includes the cameras and related integration and infrastructure at the departure gates where the technology will be deployed.

After Hardin’s presentation, he told Defense Daily that there will be a “variety of acquisitions” for the cameras and related integration.

 “We want to build public-private partnerships where airlines and airports can build a solution that’s suitable for them and can plug into our [TVS] system,” he said, adding it’s “not our plan to do it.”

Some stakeholders, namely airlines and airports, aren’t thrilled with the idea of paying for what is a government mandate although CBP is trying to make it more palatable. The agency’s vision is for biometrics to be used more commonly throughout the traveler’s process so that they can use their face to board the plane instead of a boarding pass and even to proceed through the Transportation Security Administration’s security checkpoints without the pass and another form of identification.

JetBlue is involved in the biometric exit pilot on a daily flight from Boston’s Logan International Airport and is using the facial image captured at the departure gate as a substitute for the boarding pass. In that pilot, CBP doesn’t even have an officer present, Hardin said.

Other airports and airlines want to get involved in the pilot in the coming months, Hardin said. The partnerships that CBP envisions are along the lines of the JetBlue model, he said.

How quickly things happen will depend on a number of things, including when various airports modernize, “their willingness to work with us,” including airlines, Hardin said. Some stakeholders will want to get involved immediately and some will “lag behind,” he said.

Still, he said, some airports want to be the “first biometric airport, so to speak,” to bring processing conveniences to their patrons.

“We are very supportive of that,” Hardin said.

The fully functioning exit system will be attained when most of the flights are covered, with the top 20 airports accounting for 97 percent of outbound international flights, Hardin said. He noted that John F. Kennedy, Los Angeles International and Miami International account for about 50 percent of outbound international traffic. The pilot evaluation at Miami was slated to begin Tuesday but Hurricane Irma forced the postponement by a few weeks, Hardin said.

To cover the remaining 3 percent of outbound international flights, Hardin said CBP is reviewing its options when it comes to how to collect biometrics from these fliers. Handheld devices for collecting fingerprints are an option but it could also be face recognition, he said.

CBP currently checks the fingerprints of all foreign nationals arriving to the U.S. to make sure these individuals are the same people that received their visas and to ensure there is no derogatory information about them in government databases.

The pilot evaluations began in June and so far, the number of photos available for all passengers on each flight to populate the gallery to be matched against is in the high 90s percent and matching rates are also in the high 90s, Hardin said. The photos are pulled from various government databases, he said.