The Expo was one of several events taking place over the past one to two years that has showcased the latest in biometric technology from the world’s leading manufacturers. In the U.S., increased attention to the issue has been generated as Congress, in 2016, allocated a $1 billion fund to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to acquire and implement biometric solutions to enhance international traveler security, particularly exit-tracking of foreign nationals.
Pressure from Congress has grown on DHS and its component agency responsible for administering the program, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), as numerous other countries around the world have seen a rapid expansion in recent years in the use of biometrics to enforce immigration laws and track traveler identity.
CBP Biometric Technology Pilot Programs
CBP has field-tested a mobile, handheld fingerprint scanning device at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, in conjunction with its normal enforcement operations. The agency intends to enhance national security and protect travelers’ identities against theft by verifying them through their fingerprints and matching them with their travel document.
This initiative was part of the overall CBP Biometric Exit (BE) Mobile initiative, in which a handheld mobile device was used to collect biometric exit data (two fingerprints) from a sampling of foreign national air travelers departing the United States. This data was then compared to the biometrics collected from when the travelers had originally entered the U.S. in order to track and verify their departure.
The equipment used for this test included commercial off the shelf hardware (Samsung phones with Grabba fingerprint additions) as well as a proprietary CBP software. The test was conducted across ten major international airports nationwide at the following locations: Los Angeles, San Francisco, Miami, Chicago O’Hare, Newark Liberty, New York JFK, Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, and Washington Dulles.
Additionally, facial scan and iris scan technology have been tested at both air and land ports of entry. On the land border, a test at Otay Mesa, CA captured facial scans and iris images using Unisys supplied biometric kiosks to ensure that the travel documents presented at entry and departure matched and belonged to the traveler presenting them.
Similarly, the 1-to-1 Facial Comparison Project, currently deployed at John F. Kennedy International Airport and Washington Dulles International Airport, uses facial comparison technology to confirm the identity of travelers entering the United States; it also compares a photo taken of the traveler to the photo stored in their ePassport to verify that the person presenting the document is the true owner.
Earlier this year, CBP issued an industry update regarding its plans for Biometric Exit Acquisition in the air environment. CBP plans on continuing engagement with industry on better securing airports by installing facial recognition devices across major airport hubs. CBP’s proposed facial biometric solution is expected to match non-U.S. citizens’ departures with their ID Documents used for entry into the country. Furthermore, CBP believes this technology has the potential to automate boarding procedures by enabling airlines to install facial recognition tools that eliminate the need to check boarding passes. Instead, domestic flyers’ faces would act as boarding passes.
CBP believes industry can support its Biometric Exit mission by assisting in the development or provision of the following services:
- Cloud technology
- Facial Recognition Matching Software
- Equipment for Entry Lanes
- Program Management Support
- Innovation Experiments
- Solutions for land and sea environments
With a $1 Billion fund from Congress allocated to exit tracking and raised through increases in certain visa costs (see Section 411 of Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2016), Congress wants a solution fast. They’ve set a goal to have implementation of biometric scanning in the air-exit environment for 2018, with a land-exit environment solution following at a later time.
However, the Trump Administration is very interested in fast-tracking a biometric entry/exit system and would like to see implementation begin in 2017. Achieving full implementation, however, means CBP must implement the right-sized technology for the environment with sound procedures to establish a long-term, practical solution.
For example, based on scale alone, CBP will require the solution to be unmanned. Deploying Officers with handheld readers, as was piloted in Atlanta, would be prohibitively expensive if scaled up to cover a significant number of international airport terminal jetways across the U.S. A more practical solution would be a facial scanner that works ‘at speed’ on the jetways as passengers board flights with minimal to no disruption to the boarding process. As determined through testing, facial recognition seems to be the most efficient technology, as opposed to fingerprint or iris scanning.
Additionally, capture of the biometric data is just one piece of the challenge. DHS also needs to have a system that instantly matches the captured data to the data that already exists in current databases. This back-end challenge is as formidable as the biometric data-capture component itself.
While using biometrics transforms CBP’s ability to enforce immigration laws and verify traveler identity, it will be crucial for the agency to take a deliberate approach to implementation, ensuring they’re using the right-sized technology for the environment, and that the data being collected can effectively be with other databases from domestic and international partners in order to be useful.
To be able to access biometric data from partner agencies’ databases, strategic information sharing agreements must be put in place between DHS and its domestic and international partners in order for law enforcement and intelligence agencies to leverage the full benefits of a new system.
While the Trump Administration has shared Congress’s urgency on implementing a biometric entry/exit solution to an extent, the Administration’s priority for CBP and DHS seems to remain focused on constructing a U.S / Mexico Border Wall and hiring additional Agents for U.S. Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). It remains to be seen whether these high-profile agenda items can be pursued as concurrent priorities or whether any one will emerge as a funding priority.