US Government Working on Facial Recognition For Boarding International Flights — Or Enter Airline Lounge

The administration’s executive order on travel included a lesser-noticed provision fast-tracking border exit controls in addition to the greater attention given to restrictions on who could enter the country.

Today — like in Canada — you don’t go through immigration on the way out only when you arrive in the U.S. Most countries force you to go through checks in both directions.

To accomplish new departure controls the way the rest of the world does, passengers leaving on international flights would need to go through different channels from domestic passengers. This would require significantly renovating existing airport infrastructure. It would also increase the amount of time required between arriving on a domestic flight and departing on an international one (and you’d need to show up at the airport earlier for international departures as well).

Of course the U.S. government already gets passenger lists in advance and decides who is and is not allowed to fly. This adds additional physical checks in person.

Given the costs involved I’ve speculated that despite grand plans this will have to initially just be rolled out and required of non-citizens. The administration’s executive order focuses on pushing this forward for all ‘in scope’ travelers which means non-citizens age 14 to 79.

The Obama administration was already working on a similar plan. I reported on immigration exit control tests two years ago, with a goal of implementing nationwide in airports by 2020. The tests explicitly recongized the huge costs involved — other countries designed their airports with such a system in mind, here everything would need to be retrofit — so one experiment involves staff with mobile biometric scanners. They’ve worked on facial recognition to compare people to their passports (beyond just eyeballing photos).

However the government is quickly settling on facial recognition technology — potentially for everyone — and even sharing the data with airlines so they can use it for their own purposes as well.

Initially for US Visa holders, a next test will be “[f]ace-reading check-in kiosks…appearing at Ottawa International Airport [US immigration preclearance] this spring” with a goal “to bring those same systems to every international airport in America.”

Called Biometric Exit, the project would use facial matching systems to identify every visa holder as they leave the country. Passengers would have their photos taken immediately before boarding, to be matched with the passport-style photos provided with the visa application. If there’s no match in the system, it could be evidence that the visitor entered the country illegally. The system is currently being tested on a single flight from Atlanta to Tokyo, but after being expedited by the Trump administration, it’s expected to expand to more airports this summer, eventually rolling out to every international flight and border crossing in the US.

One advantage of facial recognition, according to the head of this airport project, is that the US government already has photos of all citizens allowed to travel internationally because they’re collected with passport applications. So the platform is more easily expanded beyond Visa holders to citizens, too.

We have access to the Department of State records so we have photos of US Citizens, we have visa photos, we have photos of people when they cross into the US and their biometrics are captured into [DHS biometric database] IDENT.

And once the government has facial recognition database in place, the government’s project head says “it may be used for far more than simply verifying departures” and that it could be used by TSA (for domestic airport security as well) and even shared with airlines “to use facial matching for access to their lounge.”

The explicit plan is “to be collaborative with our various stakeholders and our sister agencies such as TSA, and we’ll make that available to them when we have it.”

This quickly makes technology to scan your own boarding pass for lounge entry obsolete.

Current law supports collecting exit data on departing non-citizens. But the systems are being built for citizens, too, and to connect those systems to other government agencies and even to offer database access to private companies favored by the government.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Already the secure flight information collected for all flying in USA has the identity of anyone leaving USA. Travelling internationally by air needs passports already. So I do not understand why another exit check is needed when the information is already being collected. When someone holds multiple citizenship and hence passports of multiple countries, an exit check could help. If Americans are at risk of illegally moving to some other country, then an emigration check is needed for American citizens. Otherwise I do not see much value in an exit check. Pls do correct if I am missing something

  2. @VJ, I don’t think you’re missing much. It’s all part of the growing Big Brother security state – not just this but so many other things being done in the name of security at great cost (financial and otherwise) and with little if any benefit. Orwell just put the wrong date on his book.

  3. I guess I don’t see a problem in monitoring people exiting the U.S., whether citizens or non-citizens.
    1. There is no expectation of privacy in walking through a public space such as an airport. You are photographed many times every day on the street in cities, stores, malls, etc. The use of security cameras is now ubiquitous.
    2. There is a valid governmental interest in monitoring who exits the U.S. and when, to deter overstaying visas, preventing parents from taking children out of the country in violation of court ordered custody provisions, or apprehending fugitives.
    3. Most other countries monitor exits from their countries. I have dozens of exit stamps in my passport. I remember my wife and I spending 20 minutes explaining to German police at FRA why there was no corresponding Schengen entry (we entered the Schengen area by ship at Livorno, Italy, and the customs official at the port simply waived our taxi through the gate).

    The real issue, like all other data collections, is one of potential hacking of the computer files, and how the information obtained will be protected.

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