ORLANDO, Fla. -- Orlando International Airport announced a new plan to use facial recognition to process arriving and departing international travelers.

  • OIA is first U.S. airport to use technology
  • Passengers are allowed to opt out
  • Technology has been tested; found that boarding decreased by 15 minutes

OIA is the first airport in the U.S. to using the technology on all passengers traveling in and out of the country

It means more photos of passengers will be taken as it is supposed to speed up the international travel process, but at the same time it raises concerns about privacy.

On Thursday, airport leaders and U.S. Customs and Border Protection officially unveiled the facial recognition program that is designed only for international travelers.

Airport leaders say passengers will not have to show their passport or boarding ticket as much.

How it works is: Customs will build a photo gallery of travelers using passport and visa photos for a given flight and temporarily store those photos in a virtual private cloud.

Then each traveler, as they get ready to board, will stand for a photo to match with the stored cloud photo to verify they should be on that airplane.

"I think it’s wonderful, because it’s always this part of the trip that stresses me out," said Maria Ripa, traveling on a flight from her native Denmark to Orlando for a conference.

Like many travelers, standing in lines isn’t Ripa’s favorite part of the journey.

“A whole lot of people (are) waiting in customs, and I usually have sweat on my forehead because I’m afraid to not catch my flight," she said.

So, Ripa was surprised when upon her arrival, the paperless screening process took around 30 seconds, as an agent snapped a photo and matched it to her visa picture.

“I was wondering why they didn’t want my thumb print and my hand and my eye like they usually do," she said.

Biometric screening is technology developed by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, following a Congressional mandate.

In 2004, the Department of Homeland Security was tasked with the feat; In 2013, U.S. Customs and Border Protection took over the entry/exit screening and operations.

“We took a very difficult security mandate and solved it by focusing on the travel experience," said John Wagner with CPB.

The facial recognition technology debuted today at Orlando International Airport, now being used mainly in international arrivals. It will soon be phased into departures.

“For passengers it means the processing into Orlando and out of Orlando is going to be greatly enhanced," said Phil Brown with the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority.

In April 2018, the board voted to approve $4 million dollars to install the new technology, the cost split with CPB. The revamp of the zones is part of the airport's larger $4.3 billion capital improvement project, which includes remodeling ticketing areas, building a new terminal and automated people movers.

According to CPB, travelers pass through security swiftly if they make a photo match. If not, or if U.S. citizens opt out of the process, they are screened in the traditional way, with the agent taking fingerprints and carefully inspecting their passport while asking a series of questions.

Pictures are stored in a secure cloud for about 14 days as they evaluate the accuracy of the system, which CPB said is currently at 99 percent.

Later, they’ll be deleted almost immediately.

Those photos of foreign nationals are stored in another system -- the Automated Biometric Identification System or IDENT -- for up to 75 years, according to CPB.

Privacy experts told the Associated Press they are concerned the program has no formal rules in place for handling the data from the facial scans nor any guidelines on what to do if a passenger is wrongly prevented from boarding.

However, some travelers like the idea.

"I think it's a wonderful idea, that way you can recognize a person and with so many things happening lately, all the people illegally in the country, all these terrorists, I think it's a good idea," said passenger Samuel Cabrera.

Airport leaders say they have already tested the technology on passengers boarding British Airways flights to the UK and found it reduced the boarding time to less than 15 minutes.

Currently, the agency is testing biometric exit at 13 of the largest airports across the United States.

Last year, Orlando International Airport processed six million international travelers, now connecting travelers to 60 international destinations, nonstop. Brown said that was a 71 percent increase over last year.

Congress has budgeted for an additional 328 CPB positions, some of which are headed to Orlando, according to CPB.

Reporter Jerry Hume contributed to this report.