U.S. Initiates Biometrics Program at Atlanta Airport

June 21, 2016
By George I. Seffers
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System, for the first time, collects data on passengers leaving the country.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) started a pilot program last week at Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport to collect biometrics on passengers leaving the country. This marks the first time the United States has collected such information. A CBP official said the government released a request for information last night and hopes to release a request for proposals next year.

John Wagner, CBP Office of Field Operations deputy assistant commissioner, pointed out to the audience at the 2016 AFCEA Homeland Security Conference that the United States does not currently collect biometrics data on passengers leaving U.S. soil. “As anyone who has traveled internationally knows, we do not have a departure control process built into our infrastructure either at the land [borders] or at the airports,” Wagner said. “When you go to Europe and then leave, you go through a departure control area. You see a border control officer or you go through a piece of technology.”

The system in Atlanta works by gathering facial recognition images of passengers boarding international flights. “We’re testing the facial comparison of the travelers as they’re boarding in real time. We’ll be collecting an image of the passenger and comparing it against what they’ve previously provided to us,” he said. “We’re able to do that because the airline tells us who is expected to leave on that flight. It’s a pretty simple matter of cueing up the photographs. We take the picture of the person and search it against the 300 or 400 people on that flight, so the system should be able to work pretty quickly.”

The pilot program will help government officials nail down the requirements for a biometrics system to monitor exiting passengers. “We’ll be rolling that out, potentially expanding to additional locations. We think that will inform our final requirements to release a request for proposals next year on the details of how we’re going to do biometric exit,” Wagner said, indicating that facial recognition might not be the final solution. “Fingerprints are still an option because we already have those. We’re really looking at what the best, most flexible, quickest technology will be."

Exiting passengers may not be the only ones affected. “This system, once it’s built, will really have implications for the inbound traveler as well. We think we can reverse that and really re-engineer how we’re doing inbound processing at the airports,” Wagner reported.

He said one challenge is figuring out how to deploy a system without creating long lines and slowing down traffic at the airport. In Europe, he pointed out, all international flights will leave from the different terminals than domestic flights, while in the United States airlines “comingle” the two.

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