How biometrics and mobile apps are securing United States’ borders

By Ming En Liew

Diane Sabatino, Deputy Executive Assistant Commissioner, CBP Office of Field Operations, gives the behind-the-scenes of the tech securing United States’ borders.

The United States passport is one of the most forged travel documents in the world. But passing off someone else’s document as your own is becoming exponentially more difficult as the country turns to tech to secure its borders.

Biometric technology is helping custom officers verify travellers’ identities with unprecedented accuracy. This, alongside other tech like mobile apps and x-ray imaging is helping the country defend its borders more effectively, while making travel more efficient.

Diane Sabatino, Deputy Executive Assistant Commissioner, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Office of Field Operations, shares more.

Enhancing border security with biometrics

The CBP uses facial biometrics to secure entry and exit points along its air, land, and sea borders, shares Sabatino.

Travellers crossing the border will pause briefly to have their photos taken when their identity needs to be verified. For instance, at check in, bag drop, and security checkpoints in an airport.

A programme then compares these new images with existing photos they have of the travellers, such as from their passport or visa to verify their identity. It has a 97 per cent accuracy rate, Sabatino reveals.

Facial biometric technology works with trained officers to verify the authenticity of travel documents. This allows officers to focus on safety and traveller intent, while relying on the tech to verify traveller identity.

“This helps us improve their ability to deter, detect, and prevent threats to our nation including impostors who misuse travel documents,” she adds.

Since September 2018, facial biometrics has prevented more than 1,200 impostors from illegally entering the United States by using stolen travel documents, reveals Sabatino.

Improving traveller experience 

Besides bolstering security, facial biometrics can also improve traveller experience. Facial biometric verification replaces the existing document checks and identity verification points that were required for entry into the United States, Sabatino explains.

This new process takes only a few seconds and eliminates the need for travellers to scan their documents or provide their fingerprints, she says. “It is an intuitive process as just about everyone knows how to take a photo, and it integrates seamlessly into the airport boarding process.”

With facial biometrics, airlines have managed to board travellers on aircrafts in just 20 minutes.

Facial recognition tech isn’t just for air travel, sea travel too has reaped rewards. Cruise lines report that facial recognition has helped them shorten the time it takes for passengers to alight by as much as 30 per cent, shares Sabatino.

Mobile apps for smoother travel

Another way that the United States improves the efficiency of its border control is through mobile applications. In 2020, the CBP launched a mobile application comprising a variety of services that travellers will need to enter or exit the country.

The app uses a series of questions to guide each user to the services they require. For example, travellers can use it to apply for documents they need to enter the United States, or check on the status of these applications.

Travellers can also speed up their entry to the country by uploading their travel information to the app in advance. These apps automate data collection and process payments, reducing the administrative workload of CBP officers and allowing them to focus on law enforcement.

“Mobile applications serve as a tool to facilitate traveller flow while complementing the inspection process conducted by a CBP officer,” says Sabatino.

The CBP also uses a mobile app to reduce passport control inspection time and overall wait time at the borders. Eligible travellers can submit their passport and other customs declaration information through a dedicated mobile app. Travellers who do so will no longer need to complete a paper form or use an automated passport gantry.

The next stage of this programme will involve combining facial biometrics with this mobile app, reveals Sabatino. This will further secure and streamline the identity verification process, she says.

Securing the transportation of cargo 

Besides people, the CBP is also responsible for checking for contraband when cargo crosses the borders. “The CBP continues to harness new technologies and policies that enhance supply chain security while reducing processing times and the cost of trade,” says Sabatino.

For instance, the CBP captures high-quality images of cargo within a vehicle to detect anomalies in the density of objects, which may indicate suspicious cargo.

They can do so without having to unload the cargo, allowing officers to scan large volumes of commercial traffic for contraband while ensuring the smooth flow of lawful trade. It has successfully cut transport examination time from an average of 120 minutes, to a mere eight minutes, shares Sabatino.

This has generated an estimated US$17.5 billion in economic benefits for the trade community, and US$1 billion in government cost savings annually, she adds.

As travel ramps up post-pandemic, tech is helping countries like the United States make travel more convenient and safer than ever before. Time to gear up for take off!