Facial recognition trials resume at Narita, Haneda airports

Immigration lines eyed but ability to ID moving people also a motive

JIJI, Staff Report

Automated facial-recognition tests are underway at Narita and Haneda airports in a stated attempt to reduce lines at passport control.

The facial-recognition trials are also focused, however, on examining whether machines can accurately identify passengers not only when standing before a camera, but also when walking.

The trials began Aug. 4 and were to end Friday. They are being used on Japanese whose passports have memory chips that can be scanned.

It is the second time the technology has been tested, after a trial in 2012 yielded an unacceptably high error rate.

The Justice Ministry thinks that using automated facial recognition gates to verify the identity of Japanese passport-holders will allow it to assign more immigration officers to screen foreign visitors.

Officials said the trials aim to gather data on around 25,000 individuals departing from and arriving at the two airports. The ministry, which runs the Immigration Bureau, wants to decide by year’s end whether to adopt the system.

“We would like to introduce it in time for the Tokyo Olympics” in 2020, a ministry official said.

The studies stem from a target set in June 2010, when the Democratic Party of Japan was in power. The DPJ wanted to boost annual tourism numbers from overseas to 25 million by 2020, up threefold from the 8.35 million in 2008, which was itself an all-time record.

The ministry set up a panel in October 2011 to pursue the goal. In an interim report in March 2012, the panel proposed running a facial ID experiment on Japanese travelers.

At present, Japanese can use automated ID gates if they register their fingerprints in advance. The ministry plans to replace fingerprint authentication with facial authentication by storing facial data in passport computer chips.

The ministry ran its first trials at the two airports in August and September 2012 and ended up with a 17.7 percent error rate. This led officials to put the program on hold.

But the need to cut lines at immigration became more apparent in 2012, when foreign arrivals topped 10 million.

Then, in September 2013, Tokyo was chosen to host the 2020 Summer Olympics, generating more concerns.

Japan is keen to perfect facial recognition for surveillance. In July, it was reported that the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry and the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry conducted experiments with Omron Corp. on unknowing commuters in Tokyo, Yokohama and Kyoto by secretly filming them at train stations with help from East Japan Railway Co. (JR East) and West Japan Railway Co. (JR West).

In JR East’s case, Omron allegedly used a year of images from the stations for a state-backed surveillance project without JR East’s consent, it was reported. It was not clear if the experiments are linked to the railway’s popular Suica card.