The Department of Homeland Security—and its U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) component in particular—is eagerly embracing an increasing use of biometrics, encompassing a class of technologies that identifies and authenticates individuals based on an electronic scan of personal characteristics such as one’s face, fingerprint or the unique pattern of an eye’s iris.
The developers and manufacturers of biometric systems are just as eager to provide the cutting-edge tools required to meet this emerging and growing need, executives at these companies said.
“We see a very bright future for the biometric industry in those [homeland security and border security] applications,” said Mohammed Murad, vice president of global sales, marketing and business development at Iris ID Systems, a biometrics provider based in Cranbury, N.J.
The accuracy of biometric systems has “improved greatly” over the past 20 years, according to Ben Hutchinson, senior director for federal programs at MorphoTrust, a Billerica, Mass.-based biometrics technology company.
“There is a lot of accuracy,” he said. “Fingerprints and face are probably the two most prolific biometrics. Iris is the most accurate, but it’s not widely implemented. Fingerprints are the gold standard. They have been around for almost 100 years if you count the way they’ve been used with paper and ink by the FBI and the law enforcement community.”
Of the various types of biometrics—fingerprint, iris scan and others—Hutchinson said that he sees a lot of potential for facial recognition.
“I think one of the modalities that you’re going to see a lot more frequently is facial recognition, because it’s already printed on credentials and folks can also take a look at that in addition to the machine looking at it,” he said.
An Important Tool for a New Mission
The mission to monitor the entry and exit of individuals to and from the United States was transferred to CBP in May 2013 and “we really embraced that new mission space,” said Colleen Manaher, executive director of planning, program analysis, and evaluation for the Office of Field Operations within CBP.
The fervor that CBP brings to its new role is leading to a “transformative effort” involving a wider use of biometrics at an array of different U.S. border crossings, Manaher said.
“What we’re finding now that we have this new entry/exit mission is that we needed a strategy that can not only deploy some of the cutting-edge technologies in biometrics but also look at the fusion between biographic and biometric [information],” she said. “I think that is critical as we move forward, that fusion of biographic and biometric.”
That includes, for instance, supplementing existing systems at the nation’s airports by “evaluating emerging biometric technologies,” she added.
Such a system would build upon the use of fingerprints—but also could well go beyond them, Manaher said.
“The fingerprint sort of represents our law enforcement foundation—how we interact with the FBI and how we interact with the law enforcement community,” she said. “But if you were to add the additional identity biometrics—which would be face-[recognition]-on-the-move [or] iris-[recognition]-on-the-move—you can imagine the transformative properties of such a deployed system, even at an airport.”
CBP plans this year to deploy experiments in mobile biometric use in an airport setting, Manaher said. In the next 12 to 18 months, CBP will be doing some “amazing experiments” in facial recognition, she added.
“As we start to look at the flights that are departing from the United States, we’ll actually start to fuse both biographic and biometric information on a mobile biometric [device],” she said.
CBP also plans to experiment with biometric systems on the southern U.S. border with inbound pedestrian traffic at Otay Mesa, which is one of three points of entry between San Diego, Calif. and Tijuana, Mexico, Manaher said.
In these tests, the agency plans to deploy face-recognition-on-the-move and iris-recognition-on-the-move technologies, she said.
“We’re going to be experimenting with each and every one of those biometrics to see what works, especially in the land border environment,” she said. “Also, at some of our airports … we’re going to start to look at facial recognition. We’re so excited about facial recognition that it’s an additional tool for us.”
Manaher cited work at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, a federal agency within the Department of Commerce, which found that facial recognition technology today actually is “a little bit better” than a human being in terms of recognizing and identifying human faces.
“Now [facial recognition systems] don’t measure the intent [of a given individual], which is always what we need an officer to do,” she said. “But can you imagine if we could get the facial recognition out and deployed to all of our ports?”
A ‘Really Great’ DHS Biometrics Laboratory
In the longer term, CBP will be working with the science and technology component of DHS, which operates a “really great facility” in Landover, Md., Manaher said. “They’re testing all sorts of what we consider long-term biometrics solutions,” she said.
One of the technologies being worked on at that lab is what Manaher termed “fingerprint-on-the-fly.”
“You just wave your hand, and it grabs your fingerprints,” she said. “It has such transformative value, I wish it was available today to deploy at all of our ports. It would cut down our process time because, right now, the taking of fingerprints is quite intense in terms of the process time.
“They’re looking at iris-on-the-move, and how and where would be the best place to deploy a biometric exit solution. Is it at the airport gate? The jetway?” she added.
Such a system would be “very transparent to the traveler,” Manaher said.
“If we were to deploy that, say at a jetway, can you imagine the future?”
Not Only Entry, But Exit, Too
A key aspect to the CBP mission will be not only to track individuals entering the United States, but also eventually to track those leaving the country as well.
“Part of our mission is now exit, or departure, control. It’s been on the books for quite some time to deploy an efficient and effective exit-control solution using biometrics,” Manaher said.
Although Congress and a number of federal agencies have talked about the need for an exit-tracking system since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, “it’s just never been implemented,” said Hutchinson of MorphoTrust.
“When you leave the country today, you typically have the airline checking the passport and there’s no real control over who’s leaving the country,” he said.
A biometric-based exit system today would be valuable, for instance, to track U.S. citizens who may be traveling to Iraq and Syria to participate in the deadly terrorist groups which have sprung up there, Hutchinson said.
In the past, the primary roadblock to the deployment of a comprehensive, national biometrics-based exit system was its cost, he said.
“Today, the prices have dropped dramatically and that’s really no longer a concern,” he said.
As part of its exploration of biometrics, CBP will, by 2016, deploy “a full-blown, operational” biometric system to track outbound travelers “at a major airport” as a first step, Manaher said.
Manaher described the example of a visitor from Ireland departing the United States who has had his or her fingerprint and iris images already captured for biometric identification.
That visitor would “go transparently through the iris-on-the-move, [so] the next time [they] fly I have that fusion of biographic and biometric, [and] you’re almost a known traveler to me at that point,” she said. “It’s a game-changer, if you see what I’m saying. We’re very excited about what we’re doing.”
The Biggest Challenge: Technology or Policy?
Biometrics technologies will continue to become smaller, faster, cheaper and more reliable, Hutchinson said.
“The real power is going to be the convergence of all of the screening, enrollment and maritime interdiction with the large-scale, back-end multimodal systems,” he said. “That’s where you get the real power, when you have a lot of data-sharing; when you have the ability to reach back into these databases and make those connections.”
Robert Wallace, president and CEO at BithGroup Technologies, a Baltimore, Md.-based biometrics provider, said he sees other emerging technologies.
They include “gesture recognition,” an electronic means of monitoring people’s gestures as they move through a given area to watch for gestures “that are out of the norm,” he said.
They also include signature verification and voice biometrics, the ability of a system to verify a person’s identity through speech, Wallace said.
“Those are some of the [technologies] that I think that are emerging that could very easily be implemented at a border-control-type area,” he said.
However, all of these systems would require huge databases to compare a given biometric to in order to make an identity match, Wallace said.
“That’s going to be the biggest challenge, I think. It’s not so much the technology, in my opinion, that is the impediment—it’s the societal acceptance of allowing ourselves to be documented in this way,” he said. “How quickly we adopt these policies and technologies will be a function of our national response or national concern about terror and our fear of terror. That could really accelerate the acceptance factor.” ♦
- Issue: 5
- Volume: 6