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U.S. refugee application process may add iris authentication, DNA testing

Biometrics data collection including iris authentication and DNA testing may soon be added to the already comprehensive application process for refugees seeking asylum in the United States, according to a report by PBS.

The application process currently includes long interviews, health screenings, and background checks where refugees are fingerprinted and checked against databases maintained by the FBI, the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security.

Iris authentication is likely to soon become another step in the application process for refugees, and Homeland Security is also developing a faster DNA testing method that can be used in field offices.

The next-generation technologies arrive amid an ongoing refugee crisis in Europe, along with last month’s Paris terror attacks, which has sparked a national debate over whether the U.S. should allow Syrian refugees into the country.

Fingerprinting was the United Nations’ chosen biometric identification method for several years until the UN’s refugee agency adopted iris scanners in October 2013.

The technology is able to identify the majority of people with great accuracy and speed, with the exception of young children and individuals who have certain kinds of eye damage.

The UN refugee agency has conducted iris authentication on more than 1.6 million refugees in nations across the Middle East and Europe over the last two years, said Larry Yungk, a senior resettlement officer with the UN.

As a result of the comprehensive scanning, the UN has built a “fairly complete biometric database” containing the iris patterns and identity of the Syrians and Iraqis who have fled their homelands, said Yungk.

The iris scanners enable the agency to track the location, date and time of when refugees check into camps and offices, as well as curbs any potential fraud.

Some critics have expressed concerns about the security and privacy implications of maintain an enormous biometric database, but Yungk maintains that the system is equipped with several layers of security.

Although the U.S. does not currently use iris scanners to identify refugees, this is expected to soon change. Prior to the Paris attacks, the State Department, DHS and the U.N. were already in discussions about sharing biometric data.

Once the legal language is hammered out, U.S. agencies will have access to UN iris scans to verify the identities and travel histories of refugee applicants. That could happen within weeks, Yungk said.

Additionally, DHS is developing “rapid” DNA testing system. Unlike traditional DNA testing, which can be expensive and take several weeks to process at a lab, these miniature DNA labs can be deployed in the field and operated by individuals with little training — all at a low cost.

The DNA system’s development was mostly funded by a $15 million grant from the DOD, DHS and the FBI.

Each agency is taking its own unique approach with the technology, with DHS developing DNA software specifically customized for use in refugee camps.

Christopher Miles, biometrics program manager for Homeland Security, said the agency hopes to produce a final product that costs about $100 per DNA test, takes less than 90 minutes, and has a 99.5 percent accuracy rate.

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