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US border boost for biometrics suppliers as Customs, ICE contracts grow

US border boost for biometrics suppliers as Customs, ICE contracts grow
 

Firms providing border building and border crossing services including biometrics look set to benefit from growing budgets from the U.S. government, perhaps as a result of the firms’ own increases in campaigning and lobbying, according to analysis by The Border Chronicle, a site dedicated to monitoring the U.S.-Mexico border.

The site has collated contracts awarded by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Spending in 2022 was a new record at a combined US$7.5 billion, up from $6.02 billion in 2021 which was the only year to buck the growth trend since 2014. The previous record was 2020’s $6.2 billion.

Overall combined budgets for the two agencies also continues to rise, reaching $26 billion in 2023, up from $24.3 billion in 2022, $24.7 billion in 2021. The report cites a study that shows a ten percent growth rate for the homeland security market.

The Border Chronicle notes that the CBP and ICE have issued more than 112,000 contracts since 2008, running to $70 billion.

The report follows the border-related fortunes of one firm in particular: Accenture. This is prompted by its decision to invest in an expensive TV commercial during an NFL playoff game, competing for airtime with big brand consumer goods.

The consultancy has been a beneficiary of border-related contracts since the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was formed, and in 2004 it was awarded the contract to lead the Smart Border Alliance, states the report, to build a virtual wall. It has subsequently had contracts for biometric databases.

Other 2022 contractors include Leidos, for supplying CBP with equipment for traveler processing and vetting which on a daily basis screens more than a million people and a quarter of a million vehicles. The software connects to a database of the biometrics of 346 million people.

And then there is the beleaguered HART project, the Homeland Advanced Recognition Technology biometric system. The CBP’s old system, Ident, currently handles around 350,000 checks at ports and border crossings, using facial recognition and fingerprint scans.

HART will double the capability to 720,000 checks a day and increase biometric databases to include more identifiers such as voice data, DNA and tattoos. These may be joined with biographical data scraped from social media and commercial sources, along with information on their family relationships and friendships.

Congress seems to have grown tired of the slow development of HART. Peratron took over from Northrop Grumman, which developed the original HART scheme. It is only partially operational and Congress cut its funding by $17 million relative to amounts requested, while having to keep Ident going to the tune of $36 million a year, leaving two biometric systems in place. Military supplier General Dynamics got the Ident maintenance deal.

Lobbying around homeland security in 2022 came to $603 million while companies including Leidos and Accenture provided campaign contributions to congressional figures, such as to Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-CA) in the case of Leidos, reports The Border Chronicle. Roybal-Allard was the head of the House of Representatives Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security, highly influential in determining ICE and CBP budgets. Chuck Fleischmann (R-Tennessee), now the subcommittee’s ranking member, benefitted similarly.

Meanwhile the Appropriations Committee has voiced its concerns that DHS conducted an internal rather than independent review of the seven years of the HART project. The new DHS budget requires such an independent review.

Civil society is demanding that HART’s database not be stored on AWS servers, where it could hold half a billion identities, arguing it is a tool of surveillance.

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