A watchdog report has warned that Homeland Security’s face scanning program, designed to track all departing travelers from the U.S., is facing “technical and operational challenges” that may not see the system fully working by the time of its estimated completion in 2021.
The report by Homeland Security’s inspector general said that although Customs and Border Protection (CBP) was making “considerable progress” in rolling out the facial scanning technology, the program is dogged with problems.
CBP has been on a years-long effort to roll out facial recognition at U.S. airports, trialing one airport after the other with the help of airlines, in an effort to track passengers as they leave the U.S. Although citizens can opt-out, the biometric scanning is mandatory for all foreign nationals and visitors. CBP is using the system to crack down on those who overstay their visas, but critics say the system violates privacy rights.
Currently in nine airports, the facial recognition program is set to be operational in the top 20 airports by 2021. But the inspector general report out Tuesday said the government may miss that target.
“During the pilot, CBP encountered various technical and operational challenges that limited biometric confirmation to only 85 percent of all passengers processed,” the report said. “These challenges included poor network availability, a lack of dedicated staff, and compressed boarding times due to flight delays.”
The report said the scanners failed to “consistently match individuals of certain age groups or nationalities.”
Although the system detected 1,300 visitors overstaying their allowed time in the U.S., the watchdog seemed to suggest that more overstays would have been found if the system wasn’t running under capacity at an 85 percent success rate.
As a result, CBP “may be unable to meet expectations for achieving full operational capability, including biometrically processing 100 percent of all international passengers at the 20 busiest airports,” the report said.
Staffing issues and a lack of certainty around airline assistance are also throwing the program into question. After all, CBP said that it will rely on the airlines to take the facial scans, while CBP does the background checks behind the scenes. But CBP’s “plans to rely upon airport stakeholders” for equipment purchases, like digital cameras needed for taking passenger photos at boarding gates “pose a significant point of failure” for the program, the report read.
“Until CBP resolves the longstanding questions regarding stakeholder commitment to its biometric program, it may not be able to scale up to reach full operating capability by 2021 as planned,” the report said.
Although the CBP disagreed, the agency said it would “develop an internal contingency plan” in case airlines and airports decline to help.
A CBP spokesperson told TechDap that the agency has made “significant advancements” since the inspector general’s report, and now says the biometric matching averages at 97 percent.