Imagine for a moment that you can quickly pass your hand in-between two screens and within seconds have your full identity and background laid out in front of a US government agency. Or, that you can painlessly gaze into a machine’s touchless ocular device and have the same thing happen. This is the fundamental nature of biometric identification systems designed to revolutionize security efforts at our border and air/land/sea ports of entry.
But, just how widespread is the use of such biometrics … and, just how effective are they at preventing entry into the US by terrorists, criminals or illegal immigrants?
Although the term “biometrics” seems to be a relatively recent buzzword, these systems have been in use for over a decade. According to the State Department, they take an objective measurement of a physical characteristic of an individual, which, when captured in a database, can be used to verify the identity of a specific person or check against other entries in the database.
The most common body part used for this purpose is the fingerprint, but such measurements can also be taken using the iris (the famous “retinal scan” seen on television shows or movies) or a human face. Laws passed some time ago actually made the use of biometrics mandatory.
In the Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act of 2002, Congress made the use of biometrics in US visas a legal requirement. This law requires US Embassies and Consulates abroad to use “only machine-readable, tamper-resistant visas and other travel and entry documents that use biometric identifiers” to international visitors entering the US. Additionally, the Homeland Security Council decided the US standard for biometric screening is 10 fingerprint scans collected at all US Embassies and Consulates for visa applicants seeking to come to the United States.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has its own division that manages the agency’s use of biometrics – it’s called the Office of Biometric Identity Management (OBIM), and according to its website, OBIM “supports the Department of Homeland Security’s responsibility to protect the nation by providing biometric identification services that help federal, state and local government decision makers accurately identify the people they encounter and determine whether those people pose a risk to the United States.”
In addition, “OBIM supplies the technology for collecting and storing biometric data, provides analysis, updates its watchlist and ensures the integrity of the data.”
DHS only started rolling out biometric tools to the border in 2015. The agency has its own biometrics database, called IDENT, for Automated Biometric Identification System, since 1994, and it originally belonged to the legacy Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). In late January 2015, DHS announced it would start deploying iris and facial recognition services to Border Patrol by the end of summer 2015. This would allow the agency to share data with the FBI’s massive database, and was supposed to be part of IDENT’s overhaul and eventual expansion.
The pilot program was also designed to address shortfalls in the biometrics acquisition process. In some cases, the resolution of photos being taken wasn’t high enough to conduct computerized matching. Iris matching is also not 100 percent accurate, as the texture of the iris can change with aging, and savvy criminals can sometimes fool iris scanners using contact lenses.
In addition, DHS’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis launched a pilot program in October 2015 called Identity Intelligence Biometrics (I2B) which was 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. According to DHS’s 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.”
But, the question is: How effective have these biometric systems been at keeping the bad guts out of the US? Many law enforcement agencies have touted the systems as incredibly useful for identifying criminal suspects and potential terrorists. Even regular consumers are thrilled with these systems, which are increasingly being used to replace passwords and purchase things more securely. However, biometric markers—most commonly fingerprints—can be replicated and used to fool a system; they can also be sold on the black market. Passwords can be changed, but biometric markers cannot. Biometric systems can also be—and have been—hacked.
That being said, the benefits of deploying biometric systems by border security agencies outweigh current flaws. The only challenge remaining is how to pay for, and standardize, the systems that are being deployed.
Sylvia Longmire is a Senior Contributing Editor for Homeland Security Today. She is also an independent consultant and author of, Border Insecurity: Why Big Money, Fences and Drones Aren’t Making Us Safer.