Fact Check: Biometrics haven't replaced passports in 40pc of US airports

Scanning on luggage at Terminal 4 of JFK Airport in New York City. Not all US airports have replaced passports with biometrics. [Reuters]

Tourism Cabinet Secretary Najib Balala last week urged the Kenya Airports Authority (KAA) to install biometric scanners at the Jomo Kenyatta Airport (JKIA) to help identify passengers, in keeping with developments in other markets.

According to Balala, most countries are installing biometric scanners and facial recognition systems at airports, and Kenya should follow suit.

“If you go to the US, 40 per cent of airports there have facial recognition and people there don’t use passports to identify themselves and this is where we need to go,” said the CS.

This is, however, not true.

The use of biometrics - fingerprints, iris patterns, voice matches and facial recognition - has increased in the US airports since the early 2000s, particularly after the September 11, 2001 terrorism attacks.

However, the deployment has largely been measured, with the US Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) using it to verify the identities of foreign nationals entering the country.

It was only recently, in 2017, that CBP began using a traveller verification service (TVC) that matches passengers’ biographic data to the Department of Homeland Security database in a live environment.

“The matching service compares the traveller’s live photo to source images such as the travel document, enabling CBP to confirm the entry and departure of in-scope aliens,” explains a report by the US Department of Homeland Security.

“In 2017, CBP demonstrated TVS at eight international airports at boarding gates using CBP officers to process each traveller,” explains the report in part. “CBP also partnered with JetBlue Airways, Delta Air Lines, British Airways, and Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) to evaluate biometric exit boarding integrated with stakeholder departure control systems.”

In 2018, authorities deployed facial comparison at 15 airports including four pre-clearance locations. According to the DHS, more than 20 million travellers have been identified using facial recognition.

This has happened in 10.7 million arriving flights, 3.4 million departing flights, 5.5 preclearance flights and 250 cruise ships.   

Balala’s claim that the technology is used in 40 per cent of US airports in place of passports is thus exaggerated.