In a crowded conference room earlier this month in Menlo Park, California, representatives from companies around the world listened intently as officials from the Department of Homeland Security explained the bidding process for contracts to develop facial recognition capabilities at land border crossings. The companies were eager to get on the ground floor of the government’s pilot program for using facial scanners and databases at the border. The pilot program, managed by the DHS Silicon Valley Innovation Program, in conjunction with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, is one of several initiatives to use image-recognition technology designed for security purposes on a grander scale.
For the companies looking to get in on the action, the government has a test in mind: According to solicitation documents, the pilot program challenges bidding companies to accurately identify three individuals in a car traveling at roughly 25 mph through raised car windows and light rain, with one of the passengers in the vehicle’s backseat. While DHS officials acknowledged in Menlo Park that facial recognition is far from a mature technology and would accept up to a 70 percent error rate for initial projects, the short-term goals of both the government and private sectors are to drastically reduce inaccuracies. CBP officials already believe that technology is far more accurate than humans at identifying people.
“Technology is far better at matching identities than humans alone,” said Dan Tancier, the CBP Field Operations official in charge of the biometric program for entry and exit into the country. “That’s a given.”
The U.S. has not yet arrived at scenarios envisioned in science fiction, such as “Minority Report,” where authorities closely track citizens using ubiquitous biometric scanners, but the government’s entrée into using facial-recognition technology is well underway. The most rapid expansions, of the sort foreshadowed in Menlo Park, will come in the U.S.’s immigration infrastructure. Some pilot programs are already underway — Boston’s Logan Airport has one. The new DHS initiative, however, is seeking to bring facial recognition to land borders, posing challenges because, indeed, cars might be driving by in the rain, with all the windows up.
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