Homeland security applications, especially those used in our nation’s border control, provide an ideal example of how to implement biometrics in a way that builds and maintains the public’s support and trust. As we know, the biometrics industry grew substantially after 9/11 and has been a huge contributor to the global war on terror ever since. In fact, the use of biometrics in homeland security applications has become something of a staple.
In February 2022, a whistleblower sparked widespread public alarm by claiming that more than 300 Afghans had been freely admitted to the U.S. despite appearing on a Defense Department watchlist of individuals whose biometrics had been previously collected and who had been identified as known or potential threats. These individuals, whose identities could have been readily verified, could pose very serious threats to our country. The public is overwhelmingly supportive of the use of biometrics to protect public safety, with 68 percent of American adults believing facial recognition can make society safer.
There is simply no form of authentication that’s as reliable and accurate as biometrics. Moreover, there have been tremendous advances since 9/11 in several areas, namely advances in deep learning, the availability of massive amounts of data for algorithm training, and extensive testing. The top 150 biometric algorithms are over 99 percent accurate across a variety of demographics. The result is bias-proofed systems that are delivering “close to perfect” performance with miss rates averaging a mere 0.1 percent.
But as politicians, privacy advocates and activists continue to voice some apprehension, applications outside of the homeland security sector (at both the state/municipal and federal levels) are bearing the brunt. The list of cities banning law enforcement from using facial recognition is growing. In addition, certain airports are facing tighter restrictions, and various federal benefits administration services as well as school districts implementing the technology are now being challenged. The risk is that growing trepidation will lead to throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
It may be helpful to discuss the lessons that homeland security offers as a roadmap to making biometrics successful in other arenas:
- Clear Procedural Safeguards Are a Must: U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) offers an excellent example of this, using biometrics to scan travelers at 26 seaports and 159 land ports and airports across the country. Complete privacy notices are prominently visible at locations using facial recognition, along with easy-to-understand instructions on how American citizen travelers can simply opt out of the screening. CBP works to provide transparency regarding how the data will be used.
- Highlight the Convenience Aspects: From time to time, there may be swings in public sentiment toward biometrics, but one thing doesn’t shift – the public’s love for convenience. CBP’s facial recognition verification process takes less than two seconds for arrivals, and this convenience factor is a prime reason for the widespread popularity of such opt-in programs as Trusted Traveler.
- Privacy and Data Protection Frameworks Must Be Intrinsic: Applications must be expertly designed and function with privacy in mind throughout all phases of data processing, storage and ongoing protection. There are new techniques evolving every day, such as the cancellable biometric as well as storage innovations like breaking biometric data down into anonymized bits and storing them across a vast network. This makes the assembly of composite images virtually impossible, even if a hacker were able to access a database.
- Have a proven process for evaluating and procuring tools: When evaluating and procuring tools, always reference the findings of independent authorities. Certain states require police agencies using facial recognition to only use software deemed to be at least 98 percent accurate across all demographics, and that’s a good thing.
Biometrics can be a major force for good, and fortunately many organizations that previously stopped their use of biometrics are now reversing course. In addition to the primary goal of enhancing public safety, biometrics can also enable huge public conveniences and more efficient government operations. We simply cannot afford to do away with one of the greatest technological advances of our time. As a leader in this space, homeland security has a key role to play, ensuring a successful knowledge transfer to other applications and demonstrating that biometrics should never be banned but, rather, implemented carefully, thoughtfully and with the right safeguards firmly in place.
The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by Homeland Security Today, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints in support of securing our homeland. To submit a piece for consideration, email [email protected].