Implemented facial recognition systems that simplify and fortify airport security, helping travelers reach their destinations faster while stopping suspected terrorists and others attempting to enter and leave the U.S. using false documents

John P. Wagner

The federal government is rolling out facial recognition systems at major U.S. airports to screen people entering and leaving the country, providing a fast, paperless process designed to make the travel experience smoother, ensure people are who they say they are, and identify suspected terrorists.

This enormous undertaking is being led by John Wagner, the deputy executive assistant commissioner at Customs and Border Protection, who brought vision and leadership to the endeavor. He took a congressionally mandated project that had been languishing and put it on track for widespread use.

“John has turned this mandate into something that will absolutely change the face of air travel,” said Daniel Tanciar, CBP’s deputy executive director.

Wagner came up with the “backbone of the project in terms of the information system, and he has built a coalition with the airlines and airport authorities that are employing our technology,” said John Sanders, CBP’s chief operating officer.

“John not only thinks strategically, but he has come up with new and clear solutions to problems, and he has been tactical to drive ideas to successful implementation,” Sanders said. “John will always tell you how you can get there. He’s not just a leader, he’s an innovator.”

Facial recognition technology uses biometric software that compares scans of travelers’ faces to a database of passport and visa photos.

Earlier biometric efforts struggled because the prescribed manner in which biometrics were used was not conducive to CBP’s operational needs, slowing the process for travelers and raising concerns about airport gridlock.

Wagner’s solution uses the flight manifest from the airlines to build a flight-specific photo gallery using photographs from the travel document travelers provided to the airline. The agency then compares a live photo from the facial recognition technology against the document photo in the gallery to ensure the traveler is the true bearer of the document. The match under this system is returned in seconds.

Wagner also realized that the facial recognition technology had the potential to eliminate the need for international travelers to physically present boarding passes, passports or other government identification at any point in the journey through the airport including, for example, dropping off bags or boarding the plane. The system he is putting in place will improve security while also cutting lines, speeding check-ins and eliminating the fumbling search for paper documents.

To bring it all together, Wagner forged key partnerships with airlines, airports, technology companies and, critically, the Transportation Security Administration.

The success of this collaboration stemmed from Wagner’s insistence on listening carefully to every stakeholder, and his determination to unite them to drive the project forward, colleagues said. Wagner gave his team unusual permission—and protection—to be bold and fail, said Heather Reilly, a principal at Deloitte Consulting LLP, who worked on the project.

Privacy advocates have raised concerns about the system, which was transferred to CBP under President Obama and has been accelerated by the Trump administration. Colleen Manaher, a top official in Wagner’s unit, said the program has been developed transparently and adhered to—and exceeded—every privacy requirement.

As for accuracy and bias, the CBP program has achieved facial matching 98% to 99% of the time in processing more than 13 million passengers since the summer of 2017. The remaining 1% to 2% did not produce a match with the database, requiring those passengers to present traditional documentation.

The system has helped identify more than 7,000 visa overstays and picked out 45 people with travel documents belonging to someone else, Manaher said. False matches have not been an issue, she added.

CBP currently is using the facial-recognition technology for arriving passengers on international flights at 15 major U.S. airports and for departing international passengers at 17 airports. CBP intends to expand the biometric entry and exit system during the next four years to cover 97 percent of all international air travelers. CBP also has begun deploying the biometric facial matching capability at other international ports of entry.

Among the new system’s greatest benefits, Wagner said, is that it will enable CBP officers to spend less time on manual and repetitive tasks and more time on identifying security threats and accurately targeting bad actors who attempt to enter and leave the country, using a process that is far more accurate and secure than the current paper-based system.

Wagner, an innovative leader known for extraordinary project management, had already developed another advanced passport control program—Global Entry, the 2008 fee-based program that allows pre-cleared travelers to enter the U.S. through biometrics-based, self-service kiosks. The new biometric program represented a far bigger challenge.

“We have taken a seemingly impossible security mandate, and we are accomplishing it by focusing on the traveler experience,” Wagner said. “The biometric mandate is being met by making the process easier for passengers.”