(TNS) —Starting this month, passengers on some international flights from O'Hare airport have been getting their pictures taken before boarding as part of a new U.S. security program that utilizes facial-recognition technology.
The program, run by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, aims to ensure the right person is getting on an international flight. The technology measures facial features, such as the distances between the eyes, nose and ears. Federal officials say it aids security and could eventually save passengers time, but privacy advocates have expressed concerns about its expanded use.
The program is part of a year-old, ongoing test of the use of facial-recognition biometric technology, started under the Obama administration, that also has been deployed at Washington Dulles International Airport and George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston, with future deployments planned for more airports this summer.
The airport tests are a way to show airlines and other airport stakeholders how the face-scanning technology works, according to Jennifer Gabris, a spokeswoman for Customs and Border Protection.
The reason for testing the technology is to aid a U.S. Department of Homeland Security program that tracks non-U.S. citizens. Since 2004, the department has collected fingerprints and photos from non-U.S. citizens before they enter the United States as part of counter-terrorism efforts.
It has been more difficult to check on departures of foreign travelers, according to Customs and Border Protection. Face-scanning technology is a quick way to confirm that someone is exiting the country, Gabris said
The Department of Homeland Security said the program is a way to better track people who overstay their visas and also to tighten security. U.S. citizens also are scanned, so airlines don't need to haveseparate boarding processes for citizens and noncitizens, Gabris said.
Beforegetting on a plane, passengers stop at a small station to have their boarding passes scanned and their pictures taken, Customs and Border Protection agents demonstrated on Wednesday. Travelers over the age of 14 and under the age of 79 are required to participate.
The live photos are electronically compared to the travel document photo the passenger already has on file with the airline, such as a visa or passport photo. This process takes a few seconds. Once their identities are confirmed, passengers proceed to their gate, show their boarding pass and passport to an airline employee, and get on their plane. This is currently being done once daily at O'Hare — an American Airlines flight departing from Terminal 3 for London.
If the person photographed is a U.S. citizen, the photo is discarded within two weeks, Gabris said. She said the face scans confirm what is already being checked manually by airport security officials — who compare passengers' passport photos to their faces.
At O'Hare on Wednesday, several passengers — all U.S. citizens — waiting to board the London flight told the Tribune they had no problem with the face scan if it boosts security.
"I'd rather be inconvenienced than dead," said Linda Long, 68, of South Whitley, Ind. She was traveling with a church group to England and Ireland.
Another passenger, the Rev. Dominic Lenk, 57, a Benedictine priest from St. Louis, said: "I have no issue with it. If it makes us safer, it's great." He noted that you go through the same process on return trips to this country.
Gabris said the face-scan technology could eventually reduce the amount of times travelers have to present travel documents throughout the airports.
Delta and JetBlue airlines have announced that they will be working with Customs and Border Protection to integrate face scans as part of the boarding process. Delta is testing the technology at John F. Kennedy International and Hartsfield-Jackson International airports, while JetBlue is testing it at Boston's Logan International Airport. Using face scans, JetBlue passengers can self-board without scanning a boarding pass at the gate, the airline said in a news release.
Privacy advocates have expressed skepticism about the program. Harrison Rudolph, a law fellow with the Center on Privacy & Technology at Georgetown University Law Center, said the system could stop a traveler using a doctored passport, but it comes at the expense of travelers' privacy.
"By collecting travelers' faces and sharing them across different systems, Homeland Security is creating serious risk for mission creep," said Rudolph. "One future possibility might be sharing information collected by these systems with state and local law enforcement; in fact, Homeland Security has reserved the right to do it."
Rudolph said the new scanning pilot is being done without congressional authorization. "That isn't how a democracy is supposed to work," he said.
Face scans also have practical problems in that they are not always accurate, noted Jay Stanley, a privacy expert for the American Civil Liberties Union.
"If you're smiling in one photo and and not smiling in another, it might not work," said Stanley, who said that fingerprints are much more accurate. "There is evidence that it is far less reliable for people with darker skin, which raises a prospect of yet another racial injustice in our society."
Chief Ralph Piccirilli, Customs and Border Protection public affairs liaison, said that the process is more than 99 percent accurate.
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