A passenger processes her admission using CBP's enhanced biometric facial comparison process at Philadelphia International Airport. (Image courtesy of U.S. Customs and Border Protection)

New ID Machines to Save Time for Travelers

Customs and Immigration agents look back and forth a lot, scanning passports for information while at the same time making sure they are talking to the right person.

“They’re looking at dates, validity, people’s eyes, ear shape and any change of appearance a traveler may have,” said Donald Josey, assistant director for passenger operations for U.S. Customs and Border Protection in Philadelphia, whose office oversees immigration at Pittsburgh International Airport.

But thanks to new technology, immigration agents will soon have to move their eyes around far less.

Facial comparison machines are being installed in Pittsburgh and at airports across the country for the rest of this year and into next. The machines mean one less step for agents and jet-lagged international travelers.

“It gives the officer more time to talk,” said Josey, who said the technology also likely adds to safety.

The machines will replace automated passport control machines, where—instead of filling out a paper Customs declaration form—eligible passengers proceed directly to electronic kiosks in the passport control area.

Travelers are prompted to scan their passports, take a photograph using the kiosk, and answer a series of questions verifying biographic and flight information. Once passengers have completed the series of questions, a receipt is issued.

Passengers will merely have to stand in front of the machine for as little as 30 seconds, customs officials say.

Facial comparison machines are being installed at PIT and in other airports across the nation for the rest of this year and into next. (Image courtesy of U.S. Customs and Border Protection)

“It does speed up the process and can save time,” said Brian Stashak, Director, Landside and Terminal Operations at Pittsburgh’s airport.

Not facial recognition

The new technology, it should be noted, is facial comparison, not facial recognition.

Facial recognition is an increasingly pervasive technology that uses dozens of points of comparison and searches a wide array of databases to identify an individual. It’s controversial, decried by civil libertarians and abandoned by some police departments, in part due to inaccuracies involving women and people of color.

By contrast, data for the facial comparison machines is gathered from passport and visa photos that passengers submit to airlines, a far more limited base of information.

“This is not facial recognition. It’s a limited collection of photos and documents kept on file for maybe 12 hours,” Josey said.

Still, American citizens can opt out of using the technology, Josey said. Non-U.S. citizens cannot.

There are now 12 passport machines being replaced at PIT for international flights, Stashak said.

The airport currently has four British Airways flights per week to London, one Apple Vacations flight to Punta Cana, and one Apple Vacations and Southwest flight each to Cancun.

Josey said the machines will be installed at every airport in the country by next year.

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