Too soon to tell if CBP biometric systems can scale

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The Department of Homeland Security’s efforts to develop a system to collect biometric data, including fingerprints and facial recognition images, is bumping up against old logistical and new planning issues, a new Government Accountability Office report found.

Even though DHS has been successfully testing biometric exit systems in airports and ports and is increasing the detail of reporting visa overstays, staffing, infrastructure and planning process issues still nag the effort, GAO said.

Infrastructure issues are particularly knotty problems for the technology, according to the GAO.

Airports are not set up to readily accept installation of systems at locations where international travelers depart, as historically those facilities have concentrated on arriving travelers.

Land ports of entry (POEs) also have issues with the technology potentially slowing traffic volume, since travelers in those locations can be on foot, riding bicycles, or inside a variety of vehicles spread across multiple lanes at the border crossing. Although Customs and Border Protection has been collecting pedestrian biometrics at select POEs on a trial basis, getting facial recognition or other biometric information from travelers in vehicles is tricky.

DHS officials told GAO the agency began work last June with Oak Ridge National Laboratory to explore options for applying biometric capabilities to vehicle passengers leaving the country.

GAO said DHS’ trial facial recognition exit system at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport officially became the Biometric Verification System in December and is biometrically confirming selected travelers departing the country there.

DHS said CBP, which is running the system, continues to test different facial image capture devices and is working with airlines to more fully integrate it with the airline boarding process at more airports.

However, the report said that as of November 2016, CBP's plans to implement biometric exit capabilities beyond a single airport implementation by 2018 had yet to be finalized.

CBP, GAO said, is working with airlines and airports on strategies to use public/private partnerships to reduce costs and give industry more control over how a biometric exit capability is implemented at airport gates.

That collaborative approach with airlines, said GAO, would rely on airlines and airports buying cameras, facial recognition and fingerprinting capabilities to collect biometric information from passengers.

CBP would be responsible for transmitting, storing and analyzing the biometric information in pursuit of enforcement actions. That approach, said GAO, represents a change in CBP’s acquisition strategy.

Because those plans and processes with airlines and airports haven’t fully developed, GAO said it is too early to assess CBP’s plans.

CBP officials told GAO that the new approach did not change the timelines for initial implementation of a biometric exit capability, said timelines and costs for future implementation could be impacted.

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a senior staff writer at FCW, whose beat focuses on acquisition, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Energy.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, tele.com magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.


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