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Biometrics registration on the way to the US border is not getting easier for migrants

Once there, Border Patrol agents use separate app
Biometrics registration on the way to the US border is not getting easier for migrants

Information technology’s benefits can be intangible and hard to quantify, but its failings are often apparent. Evidence of this can be found at the U.S. southern border, where biometrics are being used to try to bring order to a crisis.

Political, academic and journalistic examinations of new mobile applications designed to reduce crowding at immigration checkpoints have found that the apps are not helping enough and may be hurting.

A Syracuse University research paper published this spring finds that seeking asylum has been digitized with the Department of Homeland Security’s launch of CBP One, a mobile app.

While the biometric software was originally intended for another purpose, according to the paper, it was rewritten to some extent for use for the asylum process.

CBP One has become a primary conduit for asylum seekers to, effectively, get in line for a review of their application. But political decisions, says the report’s author, Austin Kocher, sometimes described as software glitches, have “created new digital barriers to asylum.”

The goal, according to Kocher, is to dissuade migrants by making them go through a process that favors people with phones and internet access and the time to deal with IT that is still being worked out.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s self-referencing magazine MIT Technology Review, this month, outlined the headaches faced by people trying to follow DHS’ instructions and file a mobile application.

A woman from Venezuela walked 62 miles as part of their journey to an asylum bid, according to reporting by the magazine. She is described as standing at the Mexico-United States border with a phone trying to get an appointment to make her case. Buggy software and/or poor connections apparently foil her efforts.

As if often the case, new technology is being marketed even as slightly older code is furrowing brows.

During a public hearing last week of the House of Representatives’ Oversight and Accountability Committee, executives from three technology vendors spoke about how recent AI and robotics could make the nation safer.

Problems with CBP One were not discussed substantively, but a business-development executive with software maker Pangiam, which boasts it creates “trusted movement,” pushed another border control app using its technology.

One of its software products, CBP’s Mobile Intake App, does face biometrics matching for rapid threat identification by officers. It also enables agents in the field to group related people found in groups, an effort to keep families together. Its deployment began with a pilot in March, 2022, and it is now used by 13,500 Border Patrol agents.

Pangiam’s Ryan Rawding testified that the app has “dramatically reduced the time to process migrants at the border.”

Ultimately, however, it might have been another researcher who had the best insight on border technology, an insight that one would think was second nature in 2023.

Benjamin Boudreaux, a policy analyst with the RAND Corp., advised the committee to consider three insights before going live with tech on the border.

New software to be used by the government should “ensure that long-standing core American values” are baked into deployments. Second, create and deploy software in a way that reflects where it is going to operate. People in some settings react differently to certain technologies, which creates different levels of risk.

Last, putting new technology in the field is a good time to also engage with people generally and with those impacted specifically.

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