The Global Entry program, managed by CBP, gives dedicated and expedited service for pre-approved travelers entering the US.
“It was just a good time to get out and to retire and see what other opportunities are out there,” Wagner, the deputy of CBP’s Office of Field Operations, told CNN when asked why he was departing his role. His exit marks a shift in the top ranks at the agency, where he has served as second in command for field operations since 2014.
Wagner’s departure also comes amid an ongoing expansion of facial recognition technology, which he says will help keep passengers safe when travel opens again, and at a time when the agency has been increasingly drawn into the political fray.
He has often been the public face of his department, which oversees 30,000 employees at airports and land ports across the country. He’s testified before Congress around 25 times on everything from Ebola to biometric data collection – often defending the agency, which is under scrutiny this week for policing the streets of Portland and a spread of coronavirus among employees.
On his last day in the office on Friday, Wagner reflected on data collection vs. privacy, the need for health and safety advice to open the borders, and working with airlines to coordinate amid the pandemic.
“We’ve seen travel has just about grinded down to just a small trickle, a fraction of what we were seeing before. For people to start traveling again, they’re going to want to feel safe, they’re going to want to feel that it’s not going to expose them unnecessarily to getting sick,” he said.
President Donald Trump closed both the northern and southern US borders to non-essential travel in March and imposed strict restrictions on travel from China, Europe and Iran. As the pandemic continues to sweep across the US, the land borders are expected to remain closed through at least August.
People are going to look for “hygienic, touch-free processes,” before they get in cars and airplanes again, he said.
Wagner called on health authorities to provide more information on the most effective means to keep people who are sick from traveling and what to do with sick people who do travel. Discussions have revolved around temperature taking, health certificates, vaccination records, contact tracing and screening upon arrival by medical professionals, according to Wagner.
“There should be some worldwide consistency and how that is decided upon and how that’s implemented,” he said.
Keeping out of politics
Wagner began his career as a Customs inspector in 1991, before the post-9/11 formation of the current agency overseen by the Department of Homeland Security.
Recently, CBP has been increasingly pulled into politics. Wagner and his boss Todd Owen, the assistant commissioner of the Office of Field Operations, “did their best” to keep the agency out of politics, a former CBP official told CNN.
“We are not political. We are professional,” said the former official, pointing to the important job of moving people and trade through the ports of entry. Last fiscal year, CBP personnel processed $2.7 trillion of imports and 410 million travelers.
Earlier this month, DHS established a new task force centered on protecting monuments, memorials and statues, following the President’s call for federal law enforcement involvement. The move included a deployment of the department’s law enforcement officers around the country in the wake of protests. On Friday, CBP admitted to being one of the agencies involved in arresting people in Portland, after video showed masked, camouflaged federal authorities without identification badges making arrests.
Wagner said he was not involved in the conversations regarding the deployment.
’The most popular government program there is’
Former CBP Commissioner Gil Kerlikowske told CNN that Wagner’s institutional knowledge and experience will be “missed quite a bit.”
“He’s the father of Global Entry. And you know, that’s the most popular government program there is,” said Kerlikowske. The program allows frequent travelers to apply, undergo a background check, pay a fee and have dedicated service when they arrive in the US, allowing people to avoid long lines.
Trusted Traveler Programs enrollment centers, including for Global Entry, closed their doors earlier this year and will remain closed until at least August as officials monitor the recent rise in Covid-19 cases in several states.
Global Entry went from around 100,000 pre-approved travelers, to more than 6 million members during Wagner’s tenure, said former CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan.
“John helped make international travel safer and a much better customer experience and his legacy for innovation at CBP is one that made crossing the border easier and more fun,” said McAleenan.
Expansion of facial recognition
Wagner told CNN that after his departure, he would like to see the expansion of the use of facial recognition for travelers leaving the United States.
The agency was implementing facial recognition long before the pandemic for security reasons, but now it has a new use for health, as well. The rollout is at various stages, depending on location.
“We’ve been working with TSA [Transportation Security Administration] to see if – and this is a big ‘if’ – if it could be applicable on a domestic flight situation,” he said. TSA oversees domestic travel, while CBP manages international security.
But the use of facial recognition has also been derided for potential privacy violations and concerns of racial bias in the technology.
A study last year from the National Institute of Standards and Technology found that the majority of face recognition algorithms exhibit “demographic differentials,” meaning an algorithm’s ability to match two images of the same person varies from one demographic group to another.
“There are ways where you can use it responsibly. And it can be a very powerful tool for us to use, but it also has the potential for misuse,” Wagner said about facial recognition technology.
At airports and land borders, CBP compares the image taken to other photos on file, not social media photos or other sources, Wagner said, adding that match rates are in the high 90 percentile. The agency has partnered with NIST to review its data in an ongoing study.
“If deployed correctly, and with the confidence of the public, meaning, we address the privacy concerns. And if we can gain their confidence in this, it can really make travel safe, simple, convenient and hygienic,” he said.