Seeing old faces on your way out of the country

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Next time you walk to Canada, you’ll encounter a little less border crossing friction. Customs and Border Protection has introduced its facial recognition comparison technology to ease the back and forth of pedestrians using the Peace Bridge. The venerable structure connects Buffalo, New York and Fort Erie, Ontario, Canada. For details, Federal Drive with Tom Temin turned to CBP deputy executive assistant commissioner, Diane Sabatino.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Ms. Sabatino, good to have you on.

Diane Sabatino: Hi, thank you so much. How are you today?

Tom Temin: Alright. So give us a sense, first of all, how much foot traffic is there, I guess most of it must be in the summer, because it’s cold up there in the winter.

Diane Sabatino: It is cold up there in the winter. But we’ve actually seen very reduced numbers across our northern and southern land border because of the COVID-19 pandemic. So the volume right now is significantly down. But we have a long history of trying to create a best in class travel system across all of our environments in the land, air and sea. And our simplified arrival is a significant piece of that. We’ve been implementing our vision of a secure and seamless and touchless travel experience well before the COVID-19 pandemic. But now we recognize that as our resources had regularly been put to the test with those significant volumes in someplace like the Peace Arch in Buffalo during those peak travel seasons. We’re not seeing those numbers now but we do understand that this rollout, these deployments are going to be critical and part of the solution in building that traveler confidence back when that travel picks up again.

Tom Temin: Sure. And tell us about how the system works. I’m an American citizen, let’s start there. I’m going to walk to Canada for the day, I guess people walk there, and what happens when I hit the bridge.

Diane Sabatino: So if someone is traveling back into the US and crossing at one of our locations, and for example, the Peace Bridge, an individual will simply pause for a photo and we run that image against a gallery of images that we have to confirm the identity of that individual. And essentially what we’ve done with the technology that’s available today, we use the biometric facial comparison technology is automate a process that we’ve been doing for years. We have always done the visual comparisons manually, with the officers making the document verification check. And now we have that automated, and frankly, the systems are better at doing it than our officers and we relieve that administrative burden from them so they can actually speak and engage with the individual to determine their intent. But taking a photo is intuitive. Everyone knows how to do it. So a very simple process for individuals as they travel.

Tom Temin: And the reference photo, where does that come from? That would be one from their passport.

Diane Sabatino: The gallery is comprised of photos where individuals have either provided photos for passports or visa applications.

Tom Temin: And I guess my question is, how would you know who’s going to be crossing in the given day? You can’t have every possible person in the United States in that database at hand.

Diane Sabatino: No, we do have a very comprehensive holding of the prior travel and the crossings for individuals. It’s a very quick process for individuals, it usually takes about one to two seconds to match an individual based on the information that we have available to us. But we do build out galleries, in particular in the air environment where we get that advanced passenger information, we really refine that all the way down to an individual flight, where they’ll only be a comparison to anywhere from 150 to 400 or so images. But in that land border environment that with the technology where it is today, we’re able to do those matches against our holdings very quickly as well.

Tom Temin: So that’s a reach back to some cloud type of storage system for the library?

Diane Sabatino: Yes, we do maintain the gallery in a cloud based system. The photos themselves are actually templatized, you’re not looking at a natural image. Certainly the technical aspect, I would have to defer to exactly what that algorithm reflects in the system. But that match is made with a photo that’s taken of the individual as they approach the officer.

Tom Temin: And how do you choose which location to roll out this type of technology next? I know it’s been rolled out at some of the pedestrian crossings on the southern border with Mexico. What caused you to do it now at Canada?

Diane Sabatino: We’ve really been looking at it as strategically as possible and where we could get the most bang for our buck and have the most significant impact. And really, it’s the availability of the resource commitment, as well as a couple of different variables that we’ll consider. We’ve accelerated our schedule in the deployment for simplified arrival to the air, land and sea environments, knowing how important it is to get to that true vision of that touchless travel that we see, that seamless travel for individuals. We’ll be rolling out to a number of locations across the northern and southern land border. We’re at 10 locations currently, majority of which are on the southern land border right now. But by the end of 2021, we anticipate being in almost all of the locations.

Tom Temin: And what about vehicle crossings, cause mainly the peace bridge is a three lane car and truck crossing?

Diane Sabatino: And we’re still working on a solution for that you We have been working diligently with our Office of Information Technology as well as NEC on the technology and the cameras that we’ll use. But that is ultimately the goal to have it deployed in both the pedestrian and the vehicle crossings.

Tom Temin: What are the challenges for doing it inside the car? Is it the getting the camera up there or the time it takes and it could cause a traffic backup? What are the issues?

Diane Sabatino: Some of the things that impact the ability to take could just simply be the lighting. But the technology and the cameras, the algorithms, where they are today, we’ve seen significant improvements in our ability to do that. And we’re constantly working with our partners in the industry and relying on the biometrics industry to help us come to the solution. The weather could have an impact, frankly, in that land border environment. So working through those issues, but we think we have good solutions on the horizon.

Tom Temin: Yes, I imagine they’d have to roll down the window at some point and the light would have to get in there. Is vehicle facial used anywhere else yet, or that’s still coming to all the locations?

Diane Sabatino: That’s still pending. We have been rolling out simplified arrival to the pedestrian environments. And the vehicle is beyond testing at this point. It’s not deployed at this point.

Tom Temin: It is under testing, but it’s not ready for primetime, in other words.

Diane Sabatino: Yes.

Tom Temin: Okay. And you mentioned that the image that is taken at that point of crossing is an algorithm and it has just details or minutiae of the face, and so forth. What happens to that image after the person comes back?

Diane Sabatino: One of the things that was really baked in from the beginning with the deployment of the facial biometric comparison technology was the privacy piece, because with new technology very understandably comes concerns with respect to privacy. So from the very beginning, outlining what those measures were going to be. And I should mention first that US citizens can opt out of the process itself, they’re not required. And we convey that message through signage and the air environment, certainly through announcements in the FIS and the gate area. But the photos themselves of US citizens that do opt in, we hold on to those, I would say no longer than 12 hours, but they can be deleted. And all of the information associated with the photo is deleted before that 12 hour mark. But with respect to non-immigrants, foreign nationals, those images are transferred over to our identity system where we maintain that biometric record.

Tom Temin: And for those that opt in to use this, what is the advantage to them versus opting out?

Diane Sabatino: Think it’s a seamless process. And when I mentioned it relieves the administrative burden of the officer. It certainly is enhanced security because the algorithms certainly are definitely helping us. We’ve identified over 300 imposters, and we’re finding more daily as we roll out to new locations and environments. But as far as the enhancement for the individual, for the foreign nationals, if we haven’t already taken fingerprints, they would be required to provide fingerprints, but in the event that they’ve already provided and had that prior travel, it’s that touchless experience for them and seamless because of that one to two second timeframe to find that match, the officers already engaged in the discussion to determine their intent and better able to make a decision more efficiently.

Tom Temin: Diane Sabatino is Deputy Executive Assistant Commissioner of Customs and Border Protection. Thanks so much for joining me.

Diane Sabatino: Thank you so much.

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