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Facial recognition technology used at airports had 85% match rate during tests

Facial recognition technology used at airports had 85% match rate during tests
A Transportation and Security Agency officer checks identification next to a camera used to photograph travelers at Los Angeles International Airport. An audit by the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Inspector General found problems with the biometrics program. (Jaime Ruiz/U.S. Department of Homeland Security)

The U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency is expected to complete a 30-day test next month of the use of facial recognition technology to screen international travelers at Los Angeles International Airport.

But an audit by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General found that pilot programs to test the technology at nine airports last year had a combined match rate of only 85% — below the agency’s goal of a 97% to 100% match rate.

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The Department of Homeland Security hopes to use facial recognition to better track and record the approximately 1 million foreign travelers who each year enter and exit the country, with about 300,000 traveling by air.

During the pilot programs at airports in Boston, Houston, New York and Atlanta, travelers were photographed as they prepared to board planes. The cameras used facial recognition technology to match up the faces of departing travelers with data collected by the federal government on each foreign national who enters the country.

When photos were taken of travelers whose images were already in the government system, the system matched the images 98% of the time, according to the audit. But airport screeners couldn’t always take photos of the passengers because of “poor network availability, a lack of dedicated staff and compressed boarding times due to flight delays,” according to the audit. As a result the overall “biometric confirmation” rate was 85%, the audit said.

The audit also blamed poor quality of digital images for difficulty matching travelers under the age of 29 and over the age of 70. In addition, the system had more difficulty matching certain nationalities — specifically U.S. citizens, Mexicans and Canadians — because the government’s “digital gallery” had fewer photos of those nationalities than of other foreign travelers, the audit said.

Congress has set aside up to $1 billion from fees charged to foreign visitors to fund the creation of a biometric screening system. The audit said the Department of Homeland Security and the Customs and Border Protection agency both concur with the recommendations of the Office of Inspector General.

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