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U.S. Homeland Security biometrics leaders discuss public engagement, privacy and legislation



The use of facial biometrics in public spaces for law enforcement is completely different from its use to automate an existing process in a secure, private area, one of the U.S. government’s leading experts on biometrics says.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) biometrics head John Wagner will retire from the agency this month, and he was interviewed by Nextgov about the development of biometric programs at CBP, where the Biometric Entry/Exit program is at now, and the role facial recognition could play in law enforcement.

Wagner tells Nextgov that the feasibility and cost effectiveness of the Biometric Entry/Exit program have been proven, and addressing privacy concerns through improved communication with the public is the next challenge. The biometric facial recognition technology used in the program is 97 or 98 percent accurate in the field, reaching 99 percent in some cases.

While law enforcement could potentially use facial recognition in public without harming people’s rights by following the Administrative Procedures Act or the Privacy Act, Wagner says, it is appropriate to start by asking if there is even a use case for such implementations. A danger he sees in the current debate around the technology is painting with too broad a brush, and eliminating beneficial, low-risk uses.

Wagner recently spoke to Biometric Update about the push for effective legislation on facial recognition.

OBIM Assistant Director on think tank podcast

A panel on biometric technology at Cleveland State University late last year was split between believing it is too accurate and not accurate enough, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Assistant Director of the Office of Biometric Identity Management (OBIM) John Boyd says in a podcast interview with Jim Lewis of the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS).

Boyd talks during the “This Does Not Compute” podcast about developing standards for future technologies, the work to be done matching face images captured in unconstrained environments, and the impact of the pandemic on the timeframe for biometric identification at a distance. OBIM was processing roughly 340,000 requests each day before COVID-19 hit, mostly attempting to match fingerprints.

“The value of biometrics lies in the application,” Boyd contends.

Applications like airport identity checks can also be carried out with biometrics in a way that complies with relatively tough regulation like GDPR, Boyd points out, based on his examination of the state-of-the-art in European airports. Similar to Wagner, Boyd says in order to build and maintain public trust in biometrics, lawmakers can establish guardrails that apply restrictions without completely preventing their use.

DHS needs to do a better job of actively engaging with a wide range of stakeholder, including the public, on what the agency is doing with biometrics and why, as well as what the gaps are in the technology’s capabilities, and what is being done to address them, according to Boyd.

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