U.S. Customs and Border Protection Office of Field Operations officers take biometric photos of passengers at Houston International Airport on Feb. 12, 2018. (Donna Burton/CBP)

CBP, TSA Leaders Confident of ‘Great Support’ for Biometrics at Turbulent DHS

Leaders in a dual-agency partnership to advance a comprehensive, coordinated biometric screening system at the nation’s ports of entry are confident they’ll continue to receive “great support” for the investment despite leadership shakeups at the Department of Homeland Security.

Acting DHS Secretary Kevin McAleenan, who used to lead Customs and Border Protection, and Acting DHS Deputy Secretary David Pekoske, who used to lead the Transportation Security Administration, both “share a passion and a drive for this kind of ingenuity,” CBP Office of Field Operations Deputy Executive Assistant Commissioner John Wagner assured industry representatives Monday at the Connect:ID expo in Washington.

“We don’t want different or competing processes or biometrics out there,” Wagner said, emphasizing that systems can be tailored for specific needs at air, sea and land ports while supporting each other with aligned goals. “We want TSA part of this so we can just build one system.”

TSA Executive Assistant Administrator for Operations Support Stacey Fitzmaurice stressed that the “ever-rising” volume of air passengers — a 5.5 percent increase in 2018 — underscores the urgency for looking at innovative technology that facilitates screening efficiently without compromising security.

“The traveling public wants curb-to-gate or ever reservation-to-destination solutions,” she said, while TSA “must be able to effectively screen individuals who will be boarding an aircraft” and “we have to evolve these processes.”

“We believe that biometrics will modernize passengers’ identity verifications over the coming years,” she added.

Wagner said one question is how to weave tech advances into the “gauntlet of checks” already being conducted at congested ports of entry.

CBP could have gone with the “typical government approach” of getting funding from Congress, buying new technology before they “throw impact on the traveling public to deal with it,” he said, but that ran the risks of “exorbitant costs” and even more travel gridlock.

“How can we leverage tools already built?” Wagner asked. “Is there a different approach to what we’ve taken before?”

The answer was CBP building an identification ecosystem opened up to other stakeholders, to “make it actually easier for travelers” as well as airlines and cruise lines, he said. “And that’s what we’re building… a single, consistent process.”

DHS has verified 11,000 overstays so far using biometric confirmation, Wagner stressed. Airports are already experimenting with biometrics and dozens of imposters — those using a passport other than their own — have also been caught at land borders.

The TSA’s Biometrics Roadmap for Aviation Security and the Passenger Experience released last fall prioritized the partnership with CBP to screen international travelers, using biometrics for Pre-check members, expanding biometrics to screen domestic travelers not covered under a trusted traveler program, and developing the infrastructure for biometric technology.

Fitzmaurice said TSA is currently “focused on maturing current pilot projects” as the agency and CBP align with wider DHS efforts on biometrics.

TSA will “support and host stakeholder conferences” as the agency is “committed to protecting passengers’ privacy,” she said, vowing to “incorporate privacy considerations into each phase.” If new technology raises risks or concerns, TSA will conduct assessments, she added.

“I invite you to work with us on innovative solutions that will result in better security faster,” Fitzmaurice told the industry representatives.

On the procurement side, she noted, “We have not solidified on an acquisition strategy, per se, yet.”

Wagner stressed that transparency with travelers is critical, being “very clear” with people on how they can be screened and how long that information is stored.

Building a “consistent experience through the airport” could also mean unusual places for facial recognition screening, such as the baggage area or even the duty-free store. “Would travelers opt-in for this kind of system? I think so,” he said.

Wagner vowed to continually improve the system because “adversaries never stop — they’re always going to find creative ways to thread through that.”

Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a senior fellow specializing in terrorism analysis at the Haym Salomon Center. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15, a private investigator and a security consultant. She is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, New York Observer, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera and SiriusXM.

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