JFK Airport Installs Facial Recognition to Boost Customs Security

The biometrics technology compares an image of travelers taken during the normal inspection process to the image stored on their ePassport.

NEW YORK – John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City has deployed facial recognition technology that is being used to match a person’s face to their passport.

At a news conference on Jan. 19 at Terminal 4, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) 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 – scans the traveler’s face, then compares it to a photo that is stored in an electronic chip on their passport.

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“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.

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“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 in February, Mills said.

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