USCIS looks go big on biometrics


The federal agency responsible for immigration is looking to iris, voice and other biometric authentication capabilities in the coming years to bolster its ability to better identify and track immigrants coming into the U.S.

Paul Hunter, chief of biometrics strategy for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said his agency is currently looking to establish its authority to use biometric ID capabilities across a number of venues, including application processing systems like the Electronic Immigration System (ELIS).

Hunter said USCIS has expedited the process and expects formal rules on the use of voice, iris and rapid DNA identification by March 2019.

All three technological capabilities promise to transform how USCIS does its work, he said.

A voice print, Hunter told FCW at an AFCEA breakfast panel on Dec. 13, would help “harden” ELIS’ security both online and in person. ELIS has come under withering criticism in the past for its inability to automate processing of the agency’s N-400 Application for Naturalization form and for inadequate background and security checks. The agency, Hunter said, is looking at how to apply voice prints to multiple ELIS applications.

In the next few years, he said, immigration officials could take a voice print along with an applicant’s fingerprints in overseas interviews with potential immigrants. That voice print could then be used to authenticate online users who may access the system remotely to check on their immigration status and other applications.

Voice identification can even help shave seconds off telephone calls for the agency. Hunter said the USCIS call center receives 50,000 calls a day about green-card status. If the center used a voice “print” tied to existing biometric information in the agency’s database to verify a caller’s identity, it might save 25 seconds per call. Multiplied by 50,000, those saved seconds could add up to millions in labor cost savings.

Biometrics in general, and rapid DNA biometric identification in particular, have the potential to transform the immigration process, Hunter said.  

Rapid DNA technology can shorten identification matching to hours, instead of months, according to Hunter. It will exactly match relatives. USCIS already uses cotton swabs and lab analysis in the immigration evaluation process to determine whether people who profess to be relatives are indeed related.

“We get a lot of fraud,” said Hunter. Rapid DNA technology, he said, would eliminate having to wait months for a test result and instead have results onsite within hours using increasingly portable rapid DNA ID technology.

The aim of adding new biometric capabilities, he said, “is to have a basket of choices” for the agency and its customers to leverage a more secure set of services from.

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, 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.


  • Defense
    Soldiers from the Old Guard test the second iteration of the Integrated Visual Augmentation System (IVAS) capability set during an exercise at Fort Belvoir, VA in Fall 2019. Photo by Courtney Bacon

    IVAS and the future of defense acquisition

    The Army’s Integrated Visual Augmentation System has been in the works for years, but the potentially multibillion deal could mark a paradigm shift in how the Defense Department buys and leverages technology.

  • Cybersecurity
    Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas  (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Lora Ratliff)

    Mayorkas announces cyber 'sprints' on ransomware, ICS, workforce

    The Homeland Security secretary announced a series of focused efforts to address issues around ransomware, critical infrastructure and the agency's workforce that will all be launched in the coming weeks.