Thanks to the introduction of biometrics into the aviation world, border security is becoming more efficient, accurate, and streamlined. In fact, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is taking advantage of this tech trend and leveraging biometrics to expedite and improve passenger validation for travelers leaving the country.

To learn more about how CBP is utilizing biometrics, Connected Aviation Today spoke with Tony Chapman, Senior Director Marketing of Product Management and Strategy at Rockwell Collins. Chapman shared his insights about the potential of using biometrics in border security and how, when applied correctly, the technology yields big benefits for all parties involved.

Here’s what he had to say on the matter:

Connected Aviation Today (CAT Editors): Can you provide a high-level overview of this biometrics program and what it’s addressing for Customs and Border Protection (CBP)?

CBP

Tony Chapman, Senior Director Marketing of Product Management and Strategy at Rockwell Collins

Tony Chapman (TC): This program is in response to a congressional requirement established years ago where CBP was tasked with validating people leaving the country, like monitoring visa over-stays, for example. Unfortunately, after the initial implementation, it languished for some time and there was no substantial progress for about a decade.

That first implementation was based on biometrically validating passengers using fingerprints, but airlines were resistant to the program as they didn’t want the biometric process to slow down the boarding and departure process. Thus, the initiative failed to gain traction.

However, with border security becoming a central concern with the current administration, the program has been revived and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), including CBP, has been tasked to implement a solution that addresses the requirements of the mandate. So, about a year ago, the initiative to integrate biometrics into border security was reinvigorated with a few pilot programs, but this time, using facial biometrics.

There was still some resistance from the airlines, but because it was facial recognition, it was a far less intrusive process than a fingerprint-based system. In fact, JetBlue made a public announcement last year showcasing their facial recognition self-boarding program in Boston.

In addition to the mandate, there are two drivers that are pushing airports to adopt this technology: a more advanced border security protocol that’s easy to integrate and a smoother overall traveler experience.

As more biometric trials progress, I think we will see full-scale production rollouts in the relatively near future. Then the question becomes how can we use that same technology further downstream in the check-in process, bag drop process, and to meet security requirements to continue improving the entire travel process for passengers?

CAT Editors: What are the key challenges in implementing biometrics into CBP processes?

TC: To illustrate the challenges, let’s take a look at the actual boarding process, which is relatively straightforward. The CBP forms a virtual manifest for each particular flight. There can be as many as 500 passengers on some flights, meaning there would be 500 images to match against the manifest in CBP’s database. That’s a relatively small, manageable size to validate, i.e. “this passenger is one of these 500 people.”

However, if we want to use that technology to streamline check-ins or bag drops, that sample size become much larger because these passengers are not identified with a particular flight. They’re just people entering the airport within a certain time period. Matching people against a much larger database is more challenging.

The other issue to consider is what match rates does the CBP require and how that affects security. When a match is performed, they may want to err on the side of caution, as it’s better to reject someone who might otherwise be accepted, rather than accept someone who should have been rejected. And to clarify, those that have been “rejected” are simply individuals that the CBP is not finding a match for and they just have to go through a manual screening; they aren’t being turned away from their flight.

This approach accounts for any of the reasons that a traveler might not match their image on file. For example, someone in a wheelchair might not be able to look squarely into the camera or a small child might be difficult to recognize. And, of course, there are always going to be people that opt into the manual process for personal preference.

Taking all of those challenges, both human and technological, into account is crucial for the success of this program.

CAT Editors: Tell me about how biometrics will enhance the abilities of CBP.

TC: Because the boarding process becomes more data-driven with biometrics, the accuracy levels of validating passengers are greatly enhanced for CBP, enabling it to meet the legislative mandates adopted over the last 15 years.

One of the questions that’s always asked about biometric is, “How accurate are automated systems?” I think there’s some expectation that they’re 100 percent accurate, but no system is, including biometrics. When there is a mismatch, you revert to a manual process so additional security measures can be applied.

Currently, the CBP estimates that it is able to secure a match in the very high 90th percentile with travelers who have photos in the U.S. CBP system, which is also a very high rate. And I suspect those that aren’t matched are people who entered via a land border or cruise ship and are now departing by air.

On any one flight, there may be five or ten people who have to go through the manual process. Because so many passengers can expedite their boarding with biometrics, the airlines have more availability to tend to passengers that need the extra help or special attention.

Biometrics systems are yielding some exciting results. Just recently, it was reported that facial recognition technology caught a passenger traveling with a false passport in D.C. The automated facial match service found a discrepancy between the man’s face and the passport image and was therefore challenged. The CPB ended up finding his real passport in his shoe.

CAT Editors: How will biometrics utilized by CBP help streamline the travel process?

TC: For the traveling public, it’s the start of boarding pass-free travel. When you approach the gate as a traveler, you do not need to present either your boarding pass or your passport, because your face is captured, it’s matched against your traveler details and there’s no need for you to produce a boarding pass.

It’s speed and convenience for the passenger, but also for airlines, because they can now board a flight with fewer staff at the gate. And they can do so in a much shorter time period because they don’t have to manually check as many faces against a passport picture.

But I think the greater benefits will accrue as the same biometric scanning process is moved further downstream in the airport to check-in, bag drop, and other security points.

CAT Editors: What do you see happening in the use of biometrics at airports in the next five years?

TC: Well, this CBP program is very U.S.-centric. It’s a subset, if you like, of the overall use case for biometrics. What I see happening within the next five years, is using a biometric enrollment for not only leaving one country but entering another country and then again for the return. This means using a one-time biometric enrollment for your entire travel journey.

We’ll begin seeing point solutions between two countries starting certainly in the next six to nine months. Rockwell Collins is slated to be involved in one between two countries by year end.

And this is just the beginning. There will be all sorts of valid use cases once passengers are enrolled, like entry into airline VIP lounges and duty-free shopping, for example. There’ll be no need to produce your boarding pass. Once that initial enrollment is commonplace, I believe we will start to see many more incremental benefits of using biometrics in the travel process.

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Chelsea Barone

About Chelsea Barone

Chelsea is an editor for Connected Aviation Today, managing the day-to-day editorial activities. Chelsea writes for other federal government and technology industry publications. Her background lies in B2B and enterprise technology, specifically cloud computing, SaaS, travel IT, and mobile devices.