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Face scanning in US airports is rife with technical problems

Homeland Security's project might not make its 2021 target date.
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Reuters/Joe Penney

If you've had misgivings about the effectiveness of Homeland Security's airport face scanning (let alone the privacy implications), you're not alone. The department's Inspector General has issued a report warning that the scanning system is struggling with "technical and operational challenges." Customs and Border Protection could only use the technology with 85 percent of passengers due to staff shortages, network problems and hastened boarding times during flight delays. The system did catch 1,300 people overstaying their allowed time in the US, but it might have caught more -- and there were problems "consistently" matching people from specific age groups and countries.

The watchdog also pointed out uncertainty about help from airlines, such as requiring them buy the cameras needed for taking passengers' photos. That represents a "significant point failure" for the face scanning system, the Inspector General said. As a result, the oversight body warned that Homeland Security might not make its target of having the face scanning system completely ready for use in the top 20 US airports by 2021.

That's still roughly three years out, and CBP wasn't convinced it would fall short. However, it did promise to create an "internal contingency plan" if it couldn't get help from airports and carriers. Don't be surprised if there are delays, or if there are significant changes in strategy to reach that 2021 goal.

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