Hobby Airport Begins Use Of Facial Recognition Technology

The new technology will allow international travelers to cut down on travel time by making it easier to go through customs and border inspections.

Haya Panjwani / Houston Public Media
New facial recognition technology at William P. Hobby airport sits at The US Customs and Border Protection inspection desk, scanning passengers faces as they enter the country.

William P. Hobby airport has begun the use of facial recognition technology at certain terminals, officials said Wednesday.

The new facial comparison technology, which started last week as a partnership between U.S Customs and Border Protection and Southwest Airlines, will allow international travelers to cut down on travel time by making it easier to go through customs and border inspections, according to Houston Aviation Director Mario Diaz.

"Simplified Arrivals will enhance the travel experience for more than a million international passengers traveling through Hobby Airport every year," Diaz said.

Haya Panjwani / Houston Public Media
Houston Aviation Director Mario Cruz speaks to press regarding the new biometric entry and exit system.

According to officials, the technology is a direct result of suggestions made to airports from the 9/11 Commission. CBP has so far claimed to have stopped more than 250 travelers who have tried to enter the country with someone else's travel documents by land, sea and air.

Under the new system, passengers who arrive at the airport will pause for a photo at the inspection point, where facial recognition technology will then compare it to previous photos, like those from passports or visas. If the system can't match the photos, a CBP officer will process that passenger manually, officials said.

Airport officials added that the software could cut customs and border inspections by nearly half.

Travelers may choose to opt out of the system, CBP officials said.

But technology like facial recognition has led to privacy concerns from critics who say it's unreliable and too intrusive. A 2017 report from Georgetown Law says programs like the one unveiled Wednesday stand "on shaky legal ground," and added that the Department of Homeland Security's face recognition system rejected 1 in 25 travelers using valid credentials.

Houston Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, a member of the Homeland Security Congressional Committee who was at the unveiling Wednesday, said she supports the use of facial comparison. But she added she was wary of the risks of profiling in technology.

"In our oversight hearings, we are finding, and I know that this technology is being reviewed, that faces of color are more difficult to discern amongst the different pictures," Lee said. "So, the human factor is something that we are going to be encouraging as members of the Homeland Security committee, as we continue to oversee the technology."

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