Border control and transportation safety apps put biometrics to the test
If the massive effort to safeguard the nation's borders with biometrics were a three-horse race between fingerprint imaging, facial-recognition and iris-scanning technology, an update would go something like this: Long-favored fingerprint technology was first out of the gate, maintained a decent lead and pulled farther ahead of the pack with an assist from the Homeland Security Department.
The Kentucky Derby this is not, nor is the underlying competition among vendors touting different biometric flavors this overt. Yet in this industry all eyes have focused on a major federal prize: DHS' mammoth immigration entry/exit system, which will use biometrics to help police the nation's borders and in many ways set the pace for international efforts.
DHS officials finally declared in May what most of the industry had suspected all along that the agency would lean first on fingerprint-related biometrics to begin building a "smart border" around the United States. It also wasn't too much of a surprise that the ranking DHS officials who made the announcement went out of their way to mention facial recognition and iris scanning as rapidly evolving technologies that will almost certainly also play roles in efforts to secure the nation's major points of entry land, sea and air.
In fact, because each biometric system has its own set of strengths and weaknesses, most industry watchers and government officials have long praised the value of combining their use in border control applications. In addition, a spate of legislation mandating federal use of biometrics and an increasingly robust set of biometric standards have also worked to buoy the entire industry (see sidebar).
In fact, the full trio of biometric options is thriving in security control and threat assessment applications, as is the use, to a certain degree, of solutions based on hand geometry. "All four have been used in some way or other for border security," said Prianka Chopra, Frost & Sullivan's senior industry analyst for biometrics.
Chopra stressed that although DHS' recent fingerprint endorsement is important to the industry, it will not stall momentum in other areas. "The government's decision is really just their technology of choice and does not cover the entire spectrum," she said.
Even so, the spotlight seems to belong to fingerprint technology vendors, especially now that DHS leaders have said images of two fingerprints along with photographs would be embedded in the visas required of most foreign visitors.
DHS leaders made public the agency's preference for fingerprint biometrics in mid-May when detailing its U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indication Technology (U.S. VISIT) system. It was then that undersecretary for border and transportation security Asa Hutchinson explained how fingerprint biometrics would be used at border crossings.
"By Jan. 1 of next year, if a foreign visitor flies into Dulles or JFK or LAX or another international airport, or arrives at a U.S. seaport, the visitor's documents will be scanned," he said. Meanwhile, the person's photos and fingerprints will be taken at the U.S. point of entry, to generate the biometrics-imprinted visa and to check the traveler against law enforcement watch lists. The exercise will include nearly 23 million users.
Ultimately, DHS officials want to have information collected at overseas consular offices. Officials there will take on responsibility for collecting fingerprint biometrics to confirm an individual's identity, gauge any security risks the traveler poses and "assess the legitimacy of travel" to the United States, explained Hutchinson.
"Later, as the technology is perfected, additional forms such as facial recognition or iris scans may be used as well," Hutchinson said. DHS and other federal officials have been careful not to dictate the types of technology used in biometric applications and seem to realize, as do many in the market, that one size does not fit all.
Keeping their options open will be handy as DHS officials farm out implementation of the biometrics-enabled visas to the State Department's 210 consulates. If the U.S. VISIT system were limited to fingerprints, that particular technology might not be the best for every culture or country. Given such considerations, "there will likely be multiple biometrics involved, because of all the decision-making that has to be done," Chopra said.
Yet those decisions lie far ahead. In the near future, DHS will use four existing contracts to get the visa system up and running. After that, the agency will open one of the largest biometric opportunities to date when it solicits proposals for U.S. VISIT. "We are looking to work with industry and expect to issue a [request for proposals] next fall," said James Williams, a former Internal Revenue Service information technology official who will head U.S. VISIT efforts.
Such broad use of fingerprint images is a new ingredient in DHS' battery of border patrol resources, though an existing pilot system is used by about 6 million individuals. According to Hutchinson, the pilot is intended to make it more convenient for those who frequently travel back and forth across U.S. borders.
The Immigration and Naturalization Service (now DHS' Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services) and the State Department developed the pilot program, which uses biometric cards containing two fingerprints and a digital photo. These biometric border-crossing cards were designed to serve as an alternative to nonimmigrant visas. They allow Mexican visitors who produce the cards instead of visas or reams of supporting documentation to speedily cross the U.S./Mexico border and stay within 25 miles of either side for up to 72 hours.
As a testament to the technology's effectiveness, Hutchinson said that the biometric information from the border-crossing card pilot was used to catch 250 "impostors trying to cheat the system."
"We will make sure that the right equipment and training is in place to make it work on a large scale," he added.
The relationship between security and convenience is also being hammered out in pilot programs and production systems in the transportation industry, both here and abroad. For example, London City Airport, which serves the capital's financial district, has used fingerprint technology for the past year to manage its employees' and transportation workers' access to airport facilities.
"We looked at iris technology as well," said Richard Gooding, the airport's managing director. "In the end, it was really somewhat of a marginal decision. But we all understood fingerprints. And though iris-scanning technology is thought of as more accurate, we found the accuracy rates only marginally higher."
So rather than lean on hard statistics or data, airport officials chose to rely more on "social factors" and the perception that fingerprint-related technology has a more established track record. "It won our hearts and minds," Gooding said.
To build the system, officials hired New York-based biometrics vendor Daon to integrate the airport's biometric authentication engine with its existing access control resources. Although officials chose fingerprints, Daon also supports iris-scanning and facial-recognition technology, because the company relies on other vendors for the actual biometric devices.
One requirement for certain biometric control systems, especially those used in public settings, is the ability to handle large volumes of transactions. To this end, Daon has partnerships with several other technology providers, including one with IBM Corp. in which the two companies scaled systems to accommodate 1 million users. Daon boasts systems with "many millions of users," said Oliver Tattan, Daon's chief executive officer.
With all of its 1,600 employees enrolled, London City Airport officials are ambitious in their plans to expand the use of biometrics. The airport will soon begin piloting use of the technology for frequent or trusted traveler applications.
Trusted traveler programs are gaining speed in the United States as well. The applications would allow passengers to opt in to prescreening exercises likely handled by the airlines and have their names run against law enforcement databases. Companies such as Symbol Technologies Inc. are marketing such systems to airlines, which could include the use of fingerprint biometrics on smart cards or other identification documents to confirm the identity of passengers and then generate boarding passes from the airlines' ticketing systems. Participants are rewarded with quicker check-in and baggage screening.
"For us, I think that using biometrics with passengers will always have to be voluntary," London City's Gooding said.
Indeed, trusted traveler and other opt-in applications will become more prevalent, while those driven by federal mandates will likely take longer to unfurl, most industry watchers agree. Prickly issues linger, not the least of which is questions about where to store databases loaded with personal information, according to Robert Mocny, who serves as Williams' deputy on U.S. VISIT. "Whether to store biometric data on the visas or in databases is an issue that is still being discussed," he said.
Questions swirling around the storage of data include several thorny privacy issues, which tend to center around the notion of federal agencies storing personal data. Because the storage of such data is an important consideration for the U.S. VISIT system, DHS officials said they would work through those decisions during system design phases.
Much further along are the technology and biometrics standards, which are almost fully developed.
Among those efforts, M1.3, the Task Group on Biometric Profiles which includes officials from the National Institute of Standards and Technology and other government agencies, as well as industry and academia is working on a standard called the Biometric-Based Personal Identification for Border Crossing. M1.3 is one of four new task groups created by the International Committee for Information Technology Standards to focus on biometrics.
Meanwhile, the market marches forward, said Fernando Podio, a member of NIST's High Performance Systems and Services Division and chairman of several key biometric standards groups, including the M1.3 task group. "Industry doesn't wait for anything," he said.
Jones is a freelance writer based in Vienna, Va.
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