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John F. Kennedy International Airport lands facial recognition tool to help ID travelers

A Customs and Border Protection officer demonstrates the

A Customs and Border Protection officer demonstrates the new facial comparison technology at Kennedy Airport on Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2016. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Kennedy Airport’s Customs and Border Protection officers now have an extra tool — facial comparison technology that will be used to help verify that travelers entering the United States are who their passports say they are.

In a news conference Tuesday at Terminal 4, Customs Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske said the facial recognition technology at the airport will only apply to U.S. citizens with e-passports and Visa Waiver Program travelers during its initial deployment. The technology at the airport, which customs officials said is the first in the country to pilot it, compares picture of the traveler taken during the inspection process with the photo stored on the traveler’s e-passport and uses a number-based rating scale to let the officer know whether the traveler in front of them matches the image of the person in the passport.

An e-passport contains an electronic chip with the same information printed on the passport’s data page: the holder’s name, date of birth, and other biographic information. The e-passport also contains a biometric identifier, such as face recognition.

“This biometric capability will aid our officers in identifying legitimate travelers while protecting them from fraud and identity theft with little to no delay to the entry process,” Kerlikowske said.

The technology was first tested at Washington Dulles International Airport last year and was successful, said Kim Mills, director of CBP’s Entry/Exit Transformation Office in Washington, D.C.

In a demonstration for the media, a customs officer took photos of one person using the technology, and the system compared the photo with that person’s e-passport image, resulting in a passing score. Next, the agent used the same passport but tested it against a different person. The program showed a score of 3 — a fail.

If an agent takes the photo three times and the score never exceeds 30, the traveler will be escorted to get secondary screening. If the score is between 30 and 50, that’s a gray area, Mills said — it will be up to that officer’s judgment on whether to pass the traveler through. A score of 50 or higher is deemed passing.

“If it doesn’t meet a certain threshold, that passenger can be referred to passport control secondary,” said CBP public affairs officer Anthony Bucci. “Typically the officer in the booth has 30 to 45 seconds with that person, so to do a more in-depth interview we would refer them” to a secondary screening, he said.

All of the images taken are deleted unless customs officials determine that further enforcement actions are needed, the agency said.

Since 2007, U.S. passports have had the electronic chip embedded in them, CBP officials said. Having the same data on the chip as on the passport facilitates the use of facial comparison technology, they noted.

Dulles will be the next airport to have the facial comparison units installed as a pilot program sometime next month, Mills said.

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