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US-VISIT Seeks Multi-Modal Biometrics for Border Security


The Department of Homeland Security US-VISIT program has been using its biometric system since January 2004, in order to secure the U.S. border.  Since then, the system has undergone changes and upgrades to adapt to expanding technologies and environments.

In the U.S., fingerprints are captured everyday by various departments and law enforcement agencies from the region down to the local level.  If there will be changes, it will be focused on the interoperability of databases with other U.S. agencies, the use of multi-modal biometrics for expedited screenings and refinements on the existing exit system.

If there’s one person advocating for increased cooperation in biometrics-based security standards worldwide, it’s Robert A. Mocny, director of US-VISIT.  As reported this week by ThirdFactor, he supports that vision of interoperability, drawn out from the experience of US-VISIT being fully interoperable with the biometrics database of the U.S. Justice Department.

In retrospect, the program started out collecting two-fingerprints as basis of comparison against criminal and terrorist watch lists, to prevent them from entering the United States.  Then, it was upgraded to 10-prints in 2008.  Being interoperable with the Department of Justice, the customs and border protection agency can access the millions of records of the Justice’s criminal master files while checking fingerprints of individuals at border checkpoints in real time and receiving responses in 13 seconds.

The same level of interoperability and integration is asked with the Biometric Identity Management Agency of the U.S. Defense Department.  The challenge is for US-VISIT to check against the Defense database in real time and vice versa.   Mocny said, “Officials will be able to get in from any point, Justice, Defense or Homeland Security to access information.”

But Mocny would not limit it to agencies within U.S. alone, but international as well.  The U.S. is a member of the Five Country Conference, along with U.K., Canada, New Zealand and Australia where these countries agreed to share immigration data and develop interoperable systems.

“As more countries do this, we need to make sure we’re adhering to standards, ensuring privacy and security,” he said.  We need to create a body or have an existing one create standards to make use that everyone knows how biometrics is used and has confidence using them.”

Fingerprint biometrics is the standard used for US-VISIT but that does not preclude them to add other modes like iris scanning and facial recognition.   In fact, iris scanning was pilot tested in 2010 in McAllen, Texas checking on immigrants that crossed the border with the watch list.  The pilot test was deemed successful.  Because of that, the Global Entry kiosks  might integrate iris biometric into their system.

For Mocny: “The kiosks will soon add iris biometics as an option for authentication in addition to fingerprint.  People will have a choice of fingerprint or iris.  For people with fingerprints that don’t match well, iris will be an option.”  Furthermore, he added, “To increase security, we could also alternate between modalities – one day it’s fingerprint, and the next day it’s iris.”

However, in terms of exit system, it definitely needs to be refined.  Airline companies refused to get biometric departure information from passengers.  Airlines, however, send biographical data from travelers, with entry data and other data sets, to Homeland Security and US-VISIT to see who has overstayed in the country or who posed a threat to the country.

Explained Mocny: “Having the biographical side gets us to a point but when we add biometrics, we’ll be in a better place. “

Will travellers want to submit to multi-modal biometric verification at airport passport control checkpoints?

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