Facial Recognition At US Airports and Land Borders: How It Works and Where It’s Used

facial recognition at us airports

A new facial recognition system is gradually being rolled out at US airports in a push to improve national security and ensure visa requirements are respected.

By 2021, the new Traveler Verification System (TVS) is expected to be fully implemented in up to 20 international airports, and several land border.

The intention of the new system is to ensure that 100% of visitors arriving at selected airports are checked and vetted by the new facial recognition methods. This includes both foreign citizens traveling to the US with an ESTA and US citizens reentering after a period of travel or vacation.

To help visitors prepare appropriately for these new procedures the following article explains how TVS is going to work and provides extra information on how to prepare to pass through national immigration with it.

This guide also details where it will be implemented across the United States and which airlines are participating in the program at present.

How the New TVS Facial Recognition Technology Works

Facial recognition tools work to recognize one human face from one another via technology. This is done using biometric features to map the distinctive and unique characteristics of each human face from both photographic and video sources.

In the case of TVS, this information is then cross-referenced against Department of Homeland Security (DHS) databases of known faces in order to find a match and to ensure the visitor is not misrepresenting their identity.

How to Pass Through US Immigration With TVS

Traveling to a location where TVS is being used will require only a small extra step in the immigration procedure. This involves a photo of the passenger being taken at the boarding gate prior to a flight arriving or leaving from a US international airport.

This initial photo will then be analyzed against the visitor’s electronic biometric photo submitted from an ESTA application online, US visa application and/or from the visitor’s passport photo. Those leaving the US from a location using TVS will also have their photo taken a second time to ensure that their data matches their initial entry information and to monitor their visa validity on exiting the States.

What Will TVS Be Used to Check?

The main goal of the implementation of TVS’s facial recognition tools is to improve the security of US borders and combat terrorism. However, it is also being used by the US Government and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) staff to check and enforce against visitors overstaying visas.

This has already proven quite successful, with more than 7,000 visitors exceeding the duration of a visa being identified with the system from 15,000 monitored flights.

The penalties for overstaying a US Visa are high, including fines, travel bans, and even prosecution and jail. As such, travelers should ensure that they respect the requirements of their visas or ESTA visa waivers in all circumstances.

Where TVS Facial Recognition Technology is Being Installed

Pilot testing is now underway across the nation. The US Government’s goal is for TVS to be fully implemented in 20 airports across the entire country. These comprise the biggest and most visited international arrival points found around the United States. The participating airports include:

  • Washington Dulles
  • Miami
  • San Francisco
  • Los Angeles
  • Atlanta
  • Seattle
  • Washington Reagan
  • San Jose
  • Boston
  • Chicago
  • Dallas/Fort Worth
  • Detroit
  • Fort Lauderdale
  • Houston Hobby
  • JFK International (New York)
  • Las Vegas
  • Orlando
  • Washington

Airlines Using TVS

Several airlines are already co-operating in TVS. This means that visitors flying with these carriers will be photographed and their biometric details analyzed before arrival at a US airport or on leaving the country on one of their flights. These airlines include:

  • British Airways
  • Delta
  • JetBlue
  • American Airlines
  • Lufthansa

With the scrutiny of airline passengers becoming more and more nuanced than ever it is important to remember to follow the correct procedures when entering the United States. That means coming prepared with the right documentation when you arrive at the airport.

For citizens of 39 visa waiver countries, that requires traveling with an approved and valid ESTA. This electronic travel authorization can be easily applied for online and validated within under 48 hours.

Introduction of Facial Recognition at Land Borders

US Customs and Border Protection are also beginning to introduce facial recognition systems at land border crossings into the United States. This technology is being trialed at a small number of crossing points on the US-Mexican border.

The system has already been successful in identifying individuals attempting to cross into the US with a valid passport that did not belong to them.

In October 2019, shortly after the trial in San Luis, Arizona, began, the facial recognition software flagged a traveler whose passport claimed he was a 22-year-old US citizen from Colorado. After cross-referencing with the passport’s historical record, he was discovered to be an 18-year-old from El Salvador.

How Will Facial Recognition at Land Borders Affect My Visit to the US?

Facial recognition checks at border control are unlikely to affect anyone traveling to the United States legally. If anything, it provides 2 advantages for arrivals:

  • Extra security
  • Faster border checks due to automation

To visit the US legally, it is important to have the correct documentation. Depending on nationality, this may include a passport, visa, or another travel permit such as the NEXUS or SENTRI.

Is Facial Recognition Accurate?

Biometric technology is, in theory, far more accurate than people at recognizing the faces of others by comparing them to photos.

According to the vice president of federal operations at NEC Corp. of America, which manufactures biometric equipment, human beings generally have a success rate of around 50% when trying to match a stranger in a lineup to a photo.

Facial recognition software, on the other hand, is claimed to be accurate 96-99% of the time.

Can You Opt-Out of Facial Recognition at Borders?

The US government introduced facial recognition at border control to increase security. It was initially intended to screen both international travelers and US citizens alike.

However, as a result of the backlash from Americans concerned with privacy issues, US citizens can opt-out of having their photo taken for facial recognition purposes. Those who choose not to have their biometrics taken may take longer to pass through border control than those who consent to use the technology.

Non-US citizens entering the US will have no choice but to go through the facial recognition screening process. It is highly unlikely that they will be able to refuse to be screened in the future.

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