Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has told airports it plans to increase its targets for scanning passengers with facial recognition as they leave the U.S., according to an internal airport email obtained by 404 Media. The new goal will be to scan 75 percent of all passengers, the email adds.
The news signals CBP’s increasing focus on biometric, and in particular facial recognition, systems at airports. Although it is unclear if related to the shift in goals, one traveler was also recently told by airline industry staff “CBP said everyone has to do it” when they asked to opt-out of facial recognition while boarding for an international flight last month.
CBP is changing its “biometric air exit goal” at the end of this month, according to the email. Up until now, CBP has been measuring its progress by tracking “flight saturation.” That is, the percentage of flights that had at least one biometrically-processed traveler, the email says. The change in goal fundamentally shifts the metric CBP will use for measuring its progress. Soon, CBP will be tracking “passenger saturation” which is the percentage of biometrically-processed passengers in totality, the email adds.
A CBP spokesperson confirmed the change in strategy in an emailed statement to 404 Media. “Traveler processing rates are a more accurate depiction of progress on implementing biometric exit and offers a more complete picture of how robust biometric exit processing is on a national level. CBP has been messaging the change in goals to stakeholders,” the statement read.
“This is a national, not per airport, goal, and applies to flights departing the U.S.,” the spokesperson added. CBP’s ultimate Congress-mandated goal is 97 percent or greater biometric exit compliance, they added.
Airlines increasingly use facial recognition systems for when travelers board aircraft. Generally, a passenger looks into a camera, the system compares their face to images on file, and confirms if the passenger is who they claim to be.
A June 2017 CBP document explains its “Biometric Exit Process” for passengers: “All travelers are required to submit to CBP inspection upon exit. Facial images will be matched and then stored for no more than two weeks in secure data systems managed by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in order to further evaluate the technology, ensure its accuracy, and for auditing purposes. In lieu of facial images, travelers may be asked to present travel documents or other proof of identification, and in some cases provide fingerprints.” That document adds that it could share traveler exit and entry data with other government agencies “if the situation warrants, for law enforcement purposes.”
Whitney Merrill, a privacy attorney, tweeted last month that she encountered a facial recognition system when boarding an international United flight.
“Requested to opt out and the woman said ‘no, CBP said everyone has to do it.’ I was surprised, but I explained nicely that I had a right to opt out and she said ‘ok I’ll tell them it isn’t working,’” Merrill wrote. Merrill told 404 Media this occurred at San Francisco International Airport when boarding a flight to London which connected to Dublin.
It seems likely CBP will meet its goal for biometrically-processing 75 percent of passengers. In 2021 I obtained a cache of documents related to the airline JetBlue’s piloting of facial recognition systems. Already back then, JetBlue said it had seen more than 90 percent of customers participate in biometric boarding when it was available.