Can DHS push harder on biometrics?

President Trump's controversial immigration order calls for an expedited approach to biometric entry/exit system, but significant issues still dog its implementation.

biometrics
 

President Donald Trump's Jan. 27 executive order restricting citizens of seven Muslim-majority nations from entering the U.S. for three months also pressures the Department of Homeland Security to develop its biometric entry/exit system in double-time.

DHS said in a Jan. 29 statement that for "the next 90 days, nearly all travelers, except U.S. citizens, traveling on passports from Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Iran, Somalia, Libya, and Yemen will be temporarily suspended from entry to the United States."

While the travel restrictions themselves have dominated the spotlight, the order also puts DHS on notice once again that it must expedite development of its biometric entry/exit tracking system to help keep track of immigrants entering and leaving the U.S.

This is the second time the biometric program has been expedited in a little over a year.

In January 2016, DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson told Congress in a report, and in hearing testimony, that he had told Customs and Border Protection to "redouble its efforts to achieve a biometric entry/exit system, and to begin implementing biometric exit, starting at the highest volume airports." Johnson said he wanted to have the system in place at those high-volume airports by 2018.

While experts said a biometric-based system is sorely needed to better identify possible problems at airports and ports of entry, they said a number of roadblocks remain that could pose significant issues on a shortened development runway.

"The challenge of a compressed schedule is that it can impact the quality of service," said Chris Cummisky, former acting undersecretary for management at DHS, now CEO of Cummiskey Strategic Solutions.

In an email to FCW, Cumminsky asked, "Is there ample time to develop adequate technology (such as facial recognition and iris scans) and to interconnect it effectively?"

DHS' Automated Biometric Identification System is currently the central agency-wide system for storing and processing biometric and associated biographic information. Cummiskey said that system, which went online in 1994, "is in need of replacement." Biometric data, he said, is at the core of DHS entire security mission, providing screening for a number of other agencies as well as itself. Getting its biometric capabilities right is crucial to future operations, according to Cummiskey.

Congress has been hounding the security agency to complete a new biometric entry/exit system for some time. Last January, Johnson told a Senate panel that it would take billions of dollars to give CBP officers mobile handheld devices to help facilitate exit tracking, and that to create individual biometric exit facilities at every gate in every airport and other departure point would be prohibitively expensive.

"The key issues with entry-exit have always been logistical issues, particularly at land ports of entry, and funding to overcome these logistical challenges," said Christian Beckner, deputy director of the Center for Cyber & Homeland Security at George Washington University.

"Most of our major international airports are not physically configured for an immigration and customs exit check, since they have mixed domestic/international terminals," Beckner said.

DHS has tried pilot projects over the last 10 years to address the issue. Major retrofits of major airports, he said, could cost billions and neither the federal government, nor airports have been willing to pay for the retrofit for the last years.

That delay and retrofit problem is even worse at border crossings with Mexico, he said. Major southern border ports of entry such as San Ysidro in California and El Paso/Juarez in Texas have more than 20 lanes for inbound checks by CBP, yet only 4-5 lanes for outbound lanes. "If a foolproof, comprehensive entry-exit system required more stringent exit checks, that would also lead to billions in costs to redesign U.S. approaches to these checkpoints -- and would require cooperation from Canada and Mexico," he said.

A former senior DHS official familiar with the agency's biometrics system development, also said logistics at airports and borders, as well as organizational issues at DHS could be significant obstacles to a fast roll out of biometric systems.

Airports, said the official, are set up to handle the passenger manifest data among the airlines and CBP. Airports have large international arrival gates, but small departure/exit areas. "Any holding of people on a jetway to do biometric exit must keep in mind the potential to delay a departure," the official said.

Biometric technology has improved dramatically in the last few years, and is up to the challenge to accurately and efficiently screen passengers, the official said. However, there are organizational challenges at play as well.

CBP is responsible for setting up the biometric systems, but DHS' Office of Biometric Identity Management is responsible for the technology itself, according to the official.

"The first rule in management is to give the responsible party the resources to accomplish the job," the official said, but "Congress refused to transfer OBIM to CBP."

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