What to know about new facial recognition technology at Orlando International Airport

OIA first airport to fully use Biometric Entry and Exit Program

International travelers are scanned by the U.S. Customs & Border Protection (CBP) Biometric Entry and Exit Program facial recognition technology at Orlando International Airport.
International travelers are scanned by the U.S. Customs & Border Protection (CBP) Biometric Entry and Exit Program facial recognition technology at Orlando International Airport.

ORLANDO, Fla. – The Orlando International Airport is on its way to becoming the first airport to fully deploy a new type of facial recognition technology for international travelers coming through its gates.

The Greater Orlando Aviation Authority Board voted in April to implement the U.S. Customs & Border Protection Biometric Entry and Exit Program at OIA beginning May 20 as part of a $4 million project. Officials are still in the process of fully implementing the technology.

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"Much smoother," traveler Garry Ferguson, of Scotland, said. "One of the issues is trying to ensure security at the same time as processing people, and this seems to be the way to do it." 

Officials say they found the technology made the customs process more efficient, claiming it verifies a passenger in less than two seconds with 99 percent accuracy. 

"Although we have a lot of great CBP officers, sometimes they get tired and sometimes they miss things," GOAA CEO Phil Brown said. "The technology amplifies this and helps them improve that recognition." 

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So what does this mean for international travelers?

The technology aims to make the arrival and departure process easier for international passengers by eliminating the need to repeatedly show boarding passes and passports. Instead, the facial recognition device, or camera, scans the passenger's face and matches it to historical images in the Virtual Private Cloud.

So far, the software is being used for passengers boarding British Airways flights to the United Kingdom and has managed to reduce the duration of the boarding process, according to a news release.

“Customer satisfaction is always our top priority and the goal of the board is to make the journey through Orlando International Airport as enjoyable as possible,” GOAA Chairman Frank Kruppenbacher said. “This program will benefit our more than 6 million annual international passengers by delivering a simpler travel process.”

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As the technology continues to be rolled out, here's what you need to know about how it works and how it aims to ease international travel.

How does the biometric entry-exit system work?

The technology differs slightly in how it works during the exit and entry process.

For exit, CBP generates a biometric template of the historical images of travelers for a flight and temporarily stores them in the virtual private cloud. Each passenger will stand for a photo near the departure gate. That photo, captured by a camera operated by airport authorities, will be matched to one of the photos in the database to verify the traveler's identity.

"You don't have to produce any documentation," John Wagner with U.S. Customs and Border Protection said. "It's tokenless. You just walk up, takes your picture, and you board the plane." 

For entry, CBP will create a photo gallery of travelers expected to arrive in the U.S. When the traveler gets to an inspection booth, the device will take his or her photo and match it to one in the gallery to verify the traveler's identity. The traveler will then be sent to baggage claim or for further inspection, depending on the passenger's reason for traveling.

Where can travelers expect to see the technology?

The system will be added at 30 OIA gates that have international departures and at CBP checkpoints in the airport's two federal inspection stations.

How long does the facial recognition process take?

Officials from CBP claim the facial recognition verification process takes less than two seconds and has a 99 percent matching rate.

Can I opt out?

Customs and Border Protection officials said that U.S. citizens can opt out of having CBP scan their face, but policy could change to require U.S. citizens to provide a photograph prior to entering or leaving the country.

Some travelers worry that this kind of information could be hacked, similar to your credit card. 

"If you're good, you're great and it's fine," traveler Gabriela Marchitelli said. "If you're bad, it's great because you'll get caught. But if you're good and your data is used for bad, how do we manage that?"

But Border and Custom Protection officials explain that the data will not be held for an extended period of time. 

"If we do take their picture, right now we're holding it for 14 days for the purposes of evaluating the accuracy of our system, and then discarding the data," Wagner said. "We are moving to a process soon where as soon as we can confirm them against their passport photo, that data is deleted. It is important to point that for U.S. citizens, we're only comparing you against the photograph you have given to the department of state for your passport." 

How much will it cost? 

The GOAA board has approved $4 million in capital expenditures funds to add the facial recognition technology. 

Are other airports using this technology?

While OIA is the first airport planning to fully implement facial recognition, the technology is also being used on a smaller scale at airports in Miami, Atlanta, New York, San Diego, Las Vegas and Chicago.

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