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IDGA discusses biometrics with Lee Bowes of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services


Acting Deputy Chief Mr. Lee Bowes currently is assisting U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) in developing strategies that focus on more person-centric aspects of identity management and data usage. Below he gives his perspective on the biometrics division, which over just this year collected biometrics on 3.8 million individuals across 138 domestic sites and many international locations.

On January 25 to 27, 2016, in Washington D.C, Mr. Bowes will be speaking at the Biometrics for Government & Law Enforcement event about: “Biometric Identity Verification for Immigration.”

Can you explain your assistance with the USCIS in developing a more person-centric focused strategy, how have you gone about this, and what are its benefits?

“The majority of my work with biometrics in USCIS has been operational in nature. We collect over 3 million new sets of biometrics every year, and my role has been ensuring that this information is collected, used, and stored correctly. Being in-tune with the daily operations, and being responsible for correcting any problems that arise, has given me insight into the areas where improvement is needed.

Treating biometrics as person-centric information, rather than transactional information, is really not overly difficult to explain. The key is to get people to think of treating data as it exists in the real physical world, and not as it exists in IT systems. The efforts I’ve been leading have focused on developing systems and processes around the “real world” concept. The largest part about advocating and leading these changes is educating the various stakeholders of the status quo. Moving toward person-centric processing requires a large amount of up-front work to address the legal and policy implications of changing the current business process. Many users and decision-makers have only a thinly-sliced view of the whole biometric picture, but once the larger realm of biometrics systems and capabilities is disseminated, the benefits become quite apparent.

For USCIS, the benefits are multiple. Person-centric processing hinges on the concept of establishing an identity at the beginning of the immigration lifecycle, and utilizing that same identity through the remainder of interactions. This includes identity verification with each encounter with an immigration applicant, which reduces or eliminates imposter fraud risk to both USCIS and the applicant. Verification is also more efficient than (re)collection, which benefits both USCIS and the applicant in terms of time and money.”

What are some key challenges facing the Biometrics Division in the USCIS?

“One challenge is bringing great ideas and new capabilities into operation quickly. While we may be able to quickly solve technical challenges, each change has to be examined to determine impact on regulation, policy, privacy, and legacy operations.

From a data and identity management perspective, we face a challenge in relating non-biometric events (document issuance, appointments, name-based background checks, etc) with biometric identities. While account numbers and the like are (in theory) singular to a person, they are easily mistyped. Many other biographic identifiers change or are provided differently (hyphenated names, middle initials, address units), making comprehensive identity management difficult to implement in the midst of legacy systems and data.”

What do you believe can be done to improve the process of collection, storage, and dissemination of biometric data, that isn’t being done?

“I think collection and storage is done quite well in USCIS and DHS in general, but we have much room for improvement in dissemination and access. Dissemination of biometric data is relatively streamlined for components utilizing the DHS-IDENT database; however, contextual data surrounding the biometric identity is a different story. Part of this reason is that contextual data (for example: immigration status, privacy flags, travel information) largely resides in legacy systems hosted by the responsible component. These legacy systems are not designed to interface in the real-time, service-oriented architecture that new systems are built upon. This means interfaces are stove-piped, or worse, rely on manual data uploads – which results in data latency and integrity issues.

One form of mitigation to dissemination issues is cross-component access to various systems. However, this too is a challenge given the multitude of authentication mechanisms (mainframe, database, active directory, ICAM). Without a more central or shared management of system access, DHS employees will be scattered across varying levels of systems access, which causes discrepancies in data knowledge.”

The FBI has said it is looking for a phone application capable of mobile biometrics, how do you see this improving the process, and where would it be used the most?

“For USCIS, I see mobile biometrics as a substantial benefit to the application process. USCIS Transformation is adding the capability for applicants to create an online account from which they can submit applications and maintain personal information. While electronic authentication and identity-proofing is quite effective in managing an online identity, there is a “gap” that occurs between online identity creation and the physical, biometric identity establishment. Mobile biometric collection could assist in tying biometrics to online events, which could then serve to verify the same identity acting online as the identity appearing in USCIS offices.”

What do you look forward to about the Biometrics for Government and Law Enforcement event?

“I look forward to sharing the progress that USCIS Biometrics Division is making in terms of moving toward implementing person-centric processes. Additionally, I’d be interested in making connections to those that have had similar challenges or are currently working on similar efforts. I am optimistic that I will meet people that may have additional perspectives on these topics, where sharing of knowledge could be mutually beneficial.”

As a speaker at the event, what do you hope to be able to leave with your audience after your session has concluded?

“I would like to leave a sense of excitement for the upcoming changes and opportunities in using biometrics to solve current problems and to make government more efficient. I feel that this is an area where the government can be a leader and adopter of cutting edge technology, and I’d like the audience to know that we have really just begun scratching the surface of possibilities.”

Reprinted by permission of IDGA’s Biometrics for Government and Law Enforcement Summit.

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