Jan. 6—Soon tens of thousand of travelers who are not U.S. citizens departing from Philadelphia International Airport (PHL) will peer look into a camera that will instantly scan their face, check if it matches the picture from their passport or visa, then permanently store it — a biometric technology that has already left privacy advocates queasy.
Airport and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials said this week that some scanners using facial biometrics are installed and operating at the airport, with 25 boarding gates in all used for international flights soon to be ready for use. That will bring the airport toward compliance with a Congressional mandate in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001 to biometrically record all foreign nationals entering and exiting the U.S. (Canadian citizens are excluded).
Biometric screening is already mandatory for travelers who are not U.S. citizens — known as foreign nationals — entering the U.S. in a process U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CPB) calls "simplified arrival."
" U.S. citizens can voluntarily participate in the process, but are not required," Heather Redfern, a spokeswoman for PHL said of the exit screening. The scanned photos of U.S. citizens would be deleted within 12 hours.
However, the facial recognition scans of non- U.S. citizens will be stored in a database. Travelers who do not have a U.S. passport can now opt out by notifying a Customs and Border Protection officer or airline or airport representative. Their documents will be checked manually. But eventually, it's expected that passing through biometrics will be mandatory.
This change has the potential to impact many travelers considering that about 2.5 million passengers passed through PHL from January through October 2022, according to the most recent data available. About 1.24 million were traveling to another country, but those numbers include U.S. citizens, so a firm figure on how many will be affected was unavailable.
"The safety and security of our passengers and airport employees are our top priority and require a collaborative effort by the City of Philadelphia Department of Aviation, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and our airline partners," PHL Chief Operating Officer Keith Brune said in a statement on the announcement.
He said the system, "will make the screening process more efficient for everyone and is especially important as international travel continues to grow post-pandemic."
Stephen Sapp, a spokesman for CPB, said the technology is already in use for travelers who are not U.S. citizens exiting 33 U.S. airports. It is also in use at border crossings and seaports. In all, he said, more than 252 million travelers have already been through facial biometrics.
Sapp said the biometrics, as of now, are part of a pilot program with airports and airlines for travelers who are not U.S. citizens leaving the country. The CPB still needs to write a regulation that would make biometrics mandatory and usher it through the approval process. There is no firm date when that might happen.
And, for at least the near future, biometrics remain optional for U.S. citizens.
Joseph Martella, CBP's Area Port Director for the Area Port of Philadelphia, said "facial biometrics and prevented more than 1,650 impostors from illegally entering the country."
Officials at PHL began experimenting with face scanning in 2020 for gates international gates A15, A16, and A17 to determine which of several types of technology worked best.
As a result, face scanning is already underway in Philadelphia at 10 gates, A7 through A17. The biometric technology will be installed at 10 more gates mid-January through February. Scanners will be installed at the remaining five gates in late March through mid-April.
The CBP will be using technology developed by SITA Smart Path and NEC.
As the airport began its testing in 2020, privacy advocates feared bias, inaccuracy, and potential misuse of the information collected.
"Automation in the boarding process makes sense in the efficiency and economic standpoint," Michael Kearns, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who specializes in machine learning, algorithms, and their biases, told The Inquirer in 2020. "But this also means that much more data about us will be logged."
CPB are also installing facial biometric matching service that airlines, airports, and the Transportation Security Administration ( TSA) can access to verify travelers' identities, including at check-ins, bag drops, security checkpoints, and at boarding. Officials say the system streamlines what can sometimes be a slow process.
As a result, the Transportation Security Administration is testing the facial recognition technology on a wide scale for U.S. citizens too. The Washington Post reported in December that the TSA has installed the technology at 16 major domestic airport with kiosks that will check the photos on travelers' IDs to make sure they're not impostors. and help with efficiency. The TSA program is voluntary for travelers.
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