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U.S. Border Agency to Expand Use of Facial Recognition Tech

Mark Bergen and Chris Cornillie

(Bloomberg) -- The U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency is set to expand its use of facial recognition, deploying the controversial technology to screen people entering the country, according to a government document released recently.

The draft request for bids lays out CBP plans to upgrade a wide range of its technical systems. That includes a goal to replace an existing "token-based" security system, reliant on verification methods such as passwords, with a biometric one, which uses inputs like fingerprints and face scans to identify people. Global Entry kiosks at the border will be replaced with a "facial recognition solution," according to the document.

CBP is looking for a private vendor to provide the technology and to move key software applications to cloud-computing services. The contract, set to start in December and extend as long as May 2025, may be worth as much as $960 million.

"A biometric-based approach allows threats to be pushed-out further beyond our borders before travelers arrive to the U.S.," the document reads. "CBP’s vision is to transition frontline officers from static booths, to a dynamic and agile operation allowing officers to admit or refer travelers using mobile technology with a single touch point."

The plans may foment protests by critics of facial-recognition technology and the agency’s practices.

As software has improved and computing costs fallen, facial recognition has grown from science-fiction into a useful tool in recent years. A backlash has followed. San Francisco banned the technology in May, citing privacy and civil liberties concerns, and several cities are considering similar moves. Critics have called for U.S. companies working on the tech, such as Microsoft Corp., Amazon.com Inc. and Google, to curb its development or stop it altogether.

CBP is also controversial. Lawmakers, civil society groups and some business leaders have criticized the agency for its role in separating families along the U.S.-Mexican border. A representative of the agency didn’t respond to an email request for comment on Monday.

The agency has existing cloud contracts with Amazon Web Services and Salesforce.com Inc. After some Salesforce staff called last year for the company to cut ties with the agency, Chief Executive Officer Marc Benioff said he was keeping the deal intact.

Over the last decade, CBP has made sizeable investments in software to track people and products entering the U.S. In January 2013, CBP awarded Northrop Grumman Corp. a multimillion-dollar contract to write biometric software currently in use at 15 airports, according to a CBP report. The agency wants to expand the program to cover 97% of airline passengers by 2021. On a typical day, CBP processes more than 1 million individuals and 280,000 privately owned vehicles, according to the new document.

Representatives from Northrop Grumman, Amazon and Salesforce did not returned requests for comment.

--With assistance from Dina Bass.

To contact the reporters on this story: Mark Bergen in San Francisco at mbergen10@bloomberg.net;Chris Cornillie in Washington at ccornillie1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Jillian Ward at jward56@bloomberg.net, Alistair Barr, Andrew Pollack

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