DHS Testing Border Biometric Program in Hunt to Identify Terrorists

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The Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Office of Intelligence and Analysis has launched a pilot program called Identity Intelligence Biometrics (I2B) which is intended to apply an automated face and fingerprint biometric identification system to help identify known and suspected terrorists and “Special Interest Aliens” (SIAs) apprehended illegally crossing the borders into the US.

SIAs are individuals who pose special attention because they come from countries known to sponsor or harbor terrorists, or are nations where there’s significant jihadist presence.

Data exclusively obtained from Customs and Border Protection (CBP) shows hundreds of illegal aliens from countries known to support and sponsor terrorism are apprehended by US Border Patrol agents each year on the southern border. Of the nearly 7,000 SIAs who were apprehended between southern border ports of entry from 1999 through 2012, for instance, nearly 3,000 were identified as citizens of Muslim nations where Al Qaeda and other jihadist terrorist organizations are active, or are state supporters of terrorism.

Several years ago, the distinctive fingerprints of an apprehended SIA were “red-flagged” as those of an Al Qaeda bomb-maker whose prints had been found on an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) in Afghanistan and entered into the Defense Department’s Biometrics Enabled Watch List (BEWL), which contains the fingerprints of “high-threat persons of interest” and is linked to other national terrorist watchlists. The system’s integration into CBP’s Automated Biometric Fingerprint Identification System (IDENT) was undergoing testing at the time.

“They’d definitely tied the man to terrorism,” explained the former military intelligence officer whose company helped develop the biometric intelligence Program.

According to the DHS report on the I2B pilot program, it will use “non-US person biometric records held by US government agencies [to] assist DHS with determining whether” existing face and fingerprint biometrics “can augment existing biometric screenings for Syrian refugee applicants and also identify a threat-nexus for a subset of non-US persons who attempt illegal entry.”

The I2B pilot will use personally identifiable information (PII) collected from refugee applicant interviews and a subset of data from subjects apprehended at or near the US border.

“Currently, DHS and the Intelligence Community (IC) lack an integrated, interagency biometric system capability to support biometric and identity intelligence analytical tasks using unclassified and classified biometric data sources,” the DHS report stated, noting, “This presents a systemic challenge to DHS efforts to identify, screen and vet individuals who have been apprehended or who are applying for benefits. The purpose of DHS’s participation in this pilot is to develop new biometric matching capabilities for immediate counterterrorism mission needs.”

DHS participants include the Office of Intelligence and Analysis (I&A), Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Office of Biometric Identity Management (OBIM) and US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) which are contributing data, biometric expertise and mission user scenarios.

For the pilot program, on behalf of USCIS and CBP, OBIM will provide a one-time, manual transfer of two categories of I2B Pilot records:

  • Un-adjudicated Syrian refugee applicants enrolled by USCIS for comparison to classified IC biometric holdings to assist in screening efforts for known or suspected terrorists, known as “Refugee Records;" and
  • Individuals CBP encountered in Fiscal Year 2013 determined were in the United States illegally and not from Mexico, “but whose nationality were otherwise unidentifiable for comparison to classified IC biometric holdings to assist in identification of known or suspected terrorists.”

The I2B pilot is expected to “evaluate identification of basic biometric capabilities and requirements for the pilot; standardize biometric records to permit ingestion and matching within IC Information Technology Enterprise (IC ITE); test ingestion and integration of biometric records in IC ITE and the applications to be used on the data within IC ITE; and, conduct mission user testing and documentation of results.”

The report said, “Although the primary intent of this pilot is to determine functional and technical requirements for a multi-modal biometrics capability (e.g., the images can be standardized and ingested successfully; the algorithms are effective), other benefits include identification of previously unidentifiable individuals related to known or suspected terrorists attempting to gain refugee status; provision of actionable intelligenceon individuals attempting to illegally enter the United States without valid identification; and informing DHS on the effectiveness of IC-owned biometric technology.”

Any terrorism information identified as a result of the I2B pilot initiative “will be retained and disseminated as appropriate and applicable” to counterterrorism agencies.

“Confirmed matches constituting Terrorism Information will be retained, used and disseminated by the IC or DHS, including updating the source systems as appropriate,” the report said. “For example, if a subject encountered at the border provides an alias, but a biometric match indicates a different name, then CBP would update the biographic record and provide the alias for existing records.

Section 1016 of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 defines “terrorism information” as: All information, whether collected, produced or distributed by intelligence, law enforcement, military, homeland security or other activities related to the existence, organization, capabilities, plans, intentions, vulnerabilities, means of finance or material support or activities of foreign or international terrorist groups or individuals, or of domestic groups or individuals involved in transnational terrorism; threats posed by such groups or individuals to the United States, United States persons or United States interests, or to those of other nations; communications of or by such groups or individuals; or groups or individuals reasonably believed to be assisting or associated with such groups or individuals.

INTERPOL officials say its biometric databases are proving increasingly important for identifying prospective foreign fighters, but that it needs more assistance from governments and other organizations to tackle the problem.

During an early 2007 visit to San Antonio, Texas, then FBI Director Mueller said “we have had indications that leaders of … terrorist groups may be contemplating … having persons come across assuming identities of others, and trying to get across the border. It is intelligence that indicates there have been discussions on that.”

Mueller previously told a House Committee on Appropriations subcommittee that a Hezbollah-organized smuggling ring had been busted that infiltrated an unspecified number of Hezbollah members into the United States from Mexico.

“This was an occasion in which Hezbollah operatives were assisting others with some association with Hezbollah in coming to the United States,” he said.

That summer, then-Director of National Intelligence, Mike McConnell, a former director of the National Security Agency stated during a border security meeting in south Texas that an unspecified number of people with known links to terrorist groups had been caught crossing the Southwest border.

Noting that “the Mexican border is a path,” McConnell said “there are numerous situations where people are alive today because we caught them.”

McConnell declined to elaborate on any of the captured terrorists to which he referred, saying only that “the vast majority you don’t hear about.”

The following month, Texas Homeland Security Director Steve McCraw, a former FBI assistant director for intelligence, told the North Texas Crime Commission that terrorists with ties to Hezbollah, Hamas and Al Qaeda had been arrested crossing the Texas border.

After grilling by Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs member Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz) during a February 2010 hearing, then DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano admitted that terrorists could “potentially” enter the United States from Mexico. “The ability of people from countries of special interest to immigrate into Central America, and [then] be ferried up to the border and over into the United States … is … a concern,” Napolitano testified. When pressed by McCain whether she meant people from “countries of special interest … could come up through our southern border,” Napolitano  admitted, “potentially, yes.”

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