The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) this summer plans to evolve planned pilot tests of fingerprint recognition technology at security checkpoints to eventually includes facial recognition testing, an agency official said on Wednesday.

Initially TSA’s Innovation Task Force will test contactless fingerprints at PreCheck trusted traveler lanes at airports in Atlanta and Denver to verify a traveler’s identity, which could potentially eliminate the need for the existing check of travel documents at the front of the security lane. Using the Biometric Authentication Technology (BAT) system, a traveler would quickly provide their fingerprints and if there is a match against the PreCheck database, the goal is for the person to be granted access through an electronic gate, eliminating the need for the travel document checker, Steve Karoly, acting assistant administrator for the Office of Requirements and Capabilities Analysis, said at the annual connect:ID conference 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

The initial BAT pilot will verify travelers’ identities with fingerprints because this data is already collected from individuals that enroll in PreCheck, Karoly said. Contactless readers allow a user to wave their palm or palms over the devices for a quick capture of the fingerprints on a person’s hand to be checked against a database, in this case the agency’s Secure Flight system to ensure that person is enrolled in PreCheck.

The next step in the project is to replace the fingerprint device with a camera to identify the traveler based on facial recognition, Karoly said. The reasoning for using facial recognition is if a person who is not a PreCheck member arrives at the checkpoint, the photo of that person taken at the front of the checkpoint can be verified against the picture on their identification document that a Transportation Security Officer puts into a credential authentication technology scanner, he said.

TSA is working through privacy and civil rights issues related to the use of photos, he said, adding “I don’t think they’re something that we can’t get over.”

TSA created the PreCheck program several years ago to allow travelers that voluntarily submit certain information on themselves to received expedited screening benefits at airport security lanes. The agency sometimes allows non-PreCheck members to use the trusted traveler lanes and get the same expedited screening procedures.

Both sets of pilots will be beginning over the next few months, he said.

TSA also plans to do a pilot of biometric technology to identify travelers dropping their bags that an airline will check, Karoly said. That pilot will include Delta Airlines and Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport in Minnesota.

Facial recognition technology appears to be in the initial stages of taking off within the Department of Homeland Security as a routine tool for verifying the identities of travelers. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) for the past year has been doing a pilot test facial recognition systems in several airports, including use of the technology to identify foreign nationals departing the U.S. on one daily flight from Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

CBP and TSA have begun to discuss how they can better share data—including photos of people—with each other to better streamline travel processes for travelers. Karoly told Defense Daily afterward that these discussions just started.

CBP plans to roll out the facial recognition pilot that is ongoing in Atlanta to eight more major U.S. airports with heavy international travel volume beginning in June. These evaluations will test the desired solution, which includes matching photos against a pre-existing gallery of photos of the departing passengers that is stored in the cloud. They will also enable the agency to obtain more data about the operating concept for its biometric exit plans.

The accuracy of matching in the facial recognition pilot in Atlanta is in the high-90’s percentages, John Wagner, deputy executive assistant commissioner for CBP’s Office of Field Operations, said on Wednesday at connect:ID. He put the matching accuracy in the 98 to 99 percent range, which is due to improved algorithms and because the database of photos is relatively small because it is just of passengers that are in the flight manifest for a particular flight.

Eventually the biometric of choice on exit could be fingerprints or iris, Wagner said, adding that it comes down to having the records to match those biometrics against.

Wagner last week said that CBP this year plans to begin a pilot test of facial recognition technology to verify the identity of foreign nationals arriving in the U.S. at an airport. Currently CBP verifies the identities of arriving foreign nationals through a fingerprint check. The agency would like to replace the fingerprint check with facial recognition technology.