Travelers heading through Dulles Airport should prepare to have their pictures taken before being allowed to board their plane, as customs and border protection officials at the Washington DC airport are currently testing a new facial recognition system for security purposes.
According to Engadget, the agency has confirmed that it is currently using a new system that snaps an image and compares it to a person’s passport photo to make sure that they are who they claim to be. The two-to-three month trial of the technology is designed to provide an additional way to verify that people are who they claim to be, the website said.
The program is known as “1:1 Facial Recognition Air Entry Pilot,” and Motherboard reports that it quietly launched at Dulles Airport back on March 11. An agency spokesperson confirmed its existence to the website last Wednesday, explaining that it is part of a large-scale initiative to use technology to bring US customs practices up to date.
A potential dark road
At least two other similar tests – or “targeted biometric operations” – are being planned as part of the Apex Air Entry and Exit Re-Engineering (AEER) project, a previously undiscovered customs and border patrol presentation obtained by Motherboard revealed. While the goal is to see if this type of facial recognition technology can help catch imposters, it has raised privacy concerns.
“Here we have a program where individuals are not suspected of wrongdoing and are engaged in routine behavior, and they are being required to submit a piece of biometric data that could identify them later and that’s going to be retained” Jake Laperruque, a fellow at the Center for Democracy and Technology told the website last week. “That’s definitely a dark road to be going down with a lot of potential for abuse,” he added.
During the ongoing pilot program, customs officers will be able to randomly select US citizens returning from overseas voyages and take their pictures. Those who are selected are not allowed to opt out of the program, according to documents published by customs officials last week, and the image will be compared to the passport photo using a special facial recognition algorithm.
That software, which was developed by the agency itself, will then provide a “match confidence score” rating how similar the two pictures are. The officer will then use his or her own discretion to pursue other action if deemed necessary. However, the security bureau insists that the software will not be the only basis for determining if a traveler is allowed to re-enter the US, or if a secondary inspection is required.
Motherboard reports that the overall pilot program is expected to last 19 months, but that customs officials will only collect pictures from 60 to 90 days. The agency said that it does not expect the facial recognition process to slow down air travel too much, and the presentation obtained by the website suggests that it will take no more than seven seconds to snap a photo of the traveler, open the one in his or her passport, and compare the two.
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The customs agency spokesperson told Motherboard that the technology “will not communicate with any other parties, databases or systems,” and that they remain “committed to protecting the privacy of all travelers.” Similarly, Ralph Gross, a facial recognition expert at Carnegie Mellon University, said that the program’s privacy safeguards make it “fairly limited.”
Privacy advocates such as Dave Maass of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) are not convinced, however, and are concerned about what this program could lead to: “Today, it’s testing at the border, tomorrow it could be facial recognition deployed in public places. Today, the photos taken are being kept segregated from other departments and agencies, tomorrow they could be shared for a whole host of other purposes.”