Terrorist screening chief: Biometrics crucial to accuracy

Despite improvements to the national consolidated Terrorist Watch List, as long as the database uses names rather than biometrics to chronicle suspected terrorists, it remains vulnerable to fraudulent identification, the Terrorist Screening Center’s director said.

“We have to rely on our sources of information,” said Leonard Boyle, TSC’s director, at a Nov. 8 hearing before the House Homeland Security Committee. “But if law enforcement or the intelligence community doesn’t pick up on that name change, yes that creates a vulnerability.”

Biometrics are the surest way to verify travelers’ identity, and TSC is working with partner agencies to develop ways to use the technology to “to better capture the true identity of the person,” he added.

But there are significant legal and technological challenges in addition to privacy concerns associated with the expanded use of biometric technology that Boyle and lawmakers say they must work through before implementing the technology. Any move toward using biometric information will likely draw concern from civil libertarians, and privacy advocates have been leery of government plans to use databases of biometric information for identification purposes.

There is also the practical challenge of gathering biometric data on the hundreds of thousands of individuals on the watch list. About 95 percent of them are foreigners.

TSC administers a database with more than 850,000 records including names, aliases and potential variations to names of suspected terrorists. They say  keeping several variations of a name and possible aliases in the database is crucial to the system’s effectiveness.

Law enforcement and DHS officials use portions of the list to screen people at border crossings and even at routine traffic stops. However, as the list grows, more innocent people may continue to find themselves confused with suspected bad guys.

Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) have been delayed at airports because their names resemble entries on the Terrorist Watch List.

A recent audit by Justice Department Inspector General Glenn Fine found that when an agency contacts TSC about a potential name match, it turns out to be a misidentification 43 percent of the time.

“Without biometrics – either fingerprint or eyeball scan – I don’t see a clear resolution to this problem,” said Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.) at the Nov. 8 hearing. “We are doing Band-Aid resolutions.”

About the Author

Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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