This month, the US Customs and Border Protection agency is launching a new facial recognition technology at US airports. High-tech scanners will compare a traveler’s face to a digital image of their passport photo. The facial comparison software is intended to prevent travelers from entering the country on fraudulent passports, and will be used on both foreign visitors and returning US citizens. The program was put into place at New York’s JFK Airport on January 19, and will eventually be extended to all international airports in the US.
The facial recognition software was successfully tested last year at Washington Dulles International Airport as the “1-to-1 Facial Comparison Project.” It utilizes the information stored on the RFID chip in the traveler’s passport to compare the stored digital image against a photo of the traveler snapped at the checkpoint.
The system relies on biometric passports to work. Biometric passports are the ones marked on the cover with a small gold icon of a rectangle with a circle inside it. That icon indicates that the passport contains a computer chip (RFID chip) that can be read by specialized radio frequency devices. The chip stores the basic passport information, such as the passport number and the traveler’s name and date of birth, as well as a digitized version of the passport photo. It is this digitized photo which is used for comparison purposes by the facial recognition software at the airport. Biometric passports have become the international standard. The United States has been issuing biometric passports since 2006, which means that the last few non-biometric US passports will expire this year.
The Department of Homeland Security has instituted the facial recognition technology as part of their “Apex Air Entry and Exit Re-Engineering Project.” The goal of this project is to improve the country’s ability to screen incoming travelers in the interest of national security.