Entering the US could get quicker with new facial recognition screening process at airports

Jun 6, 2022

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In preparation for an increasing number of international arrivals at U.S. airports due to the lifting of pandemic-related border restrictions, U.S. Customs and Border Protection has announced plans to use new biometric facial comparison technology to screen incoming international travellers.

This new technology automates a part of the manual document check currently used to verify passengers upon arrival at U.S. entry points, namely of passports, which CBP hopes will streamline the arrival process for international visitors.

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Currently, all travellers entering the country, regardless of citizenship, are required by U.S. law to verify their identity by showing proof of an acceptable travel document. This is typically done by flashing a passport from their country of origin, though travellers from some countries also need a visa to enter.

This process generally takes just a few minutes for most travellers once you actually make it through the customs line. CBP’s enhanced international arrival process, called Simplified Arrival, automates this part of the overall screening. This could reduce processing times to a few seconds.

With this new process, travellers will have their photo taken once they reach the agent. You’ll still need to provide your passport to confirm you are who you say you are. Then, an agent will use a computer to compare the photo on record of the passport holder with the new photo of the traveler just taken.

That comparison screening process is supposed to usher travelers through more quickly since it’s more automated, but you do still have to show your passport. The process should only take a few seconds and is more than 98% accurate, according to CBP.

If for some reason this biometric screening of your passport fails (say, if the new photo doesn’t match the one on record), you would have to go through the traditional manual check.

The agency also confirmed that this system may eliminate the need for some return travellers to provide fingerprints. The first time travellers provide fingerprints, the prints are stored in a Department of Homeland Security database along with their photo.

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“It offers travellers a secure, more touchless experience, so in arriving from select airports, international travelers merely pause for a photo at the CBP inspection area and in a matter of seconds, our biometric facial comparison service will automatically compare the new photo of a traveler to a small gallery of images that are based on the flight manifest,” a CBP spokesperson said.

To address any privacy concerns, CBP will delete new photos of U.S. citizens within 12 hours, and those of non-U.S. citizens will be securely stored by the DHS.

Foreign citizens are the only travellers currently being asked to participate in this automated passport check. However, they can opt out of using the biometric facial comparison technology in favor of being processed through the traditional manual CBP document inspection, according to the agency.

The government has used the biometric facial comparison process to screen more than 171 million travelers at various air, land and sea entry ports across the U.S. since 2018. With this technology, the government has prevented nearly 1,500 individuals from illegally entering the country using someone else’s identity.

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This summer alone, CBP and the Transportation Security Administration both rolled out new technology designed to address common pain points for travellers, including long security checkpoint lines when departing U.S. airports and lengthy check-in queues when arriving in the U.S. from abroad.

In anticipation of a travel season with air travel volume not seen since 2019, the TSA recently expanded digital screening operations at airport screening checkpoints in more than 160 airports nationwide. By adding other screening methods, including digital verification of carry-on bags, the TSA hopes to further reduce the amount of physical contact between TSA employees and travellers while cutting down security wait times.

“At each [entry] port, CBP plans and adjusts staffing based on workload to ensure that travellers are processed as efficiently as possible while maintaining a high level of security and safety,” the spokesperson said.

Featured photo of travellers walking into U.S. Customs at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport by Camilo Freedman/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images.

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