Advancing biometric tech finally leads to progress tracking foreign travelers
The U.S. has been collecting biometrics from foreign travelers entering the country for more than a decade. Way back in 2002, US-VISIT – now the Office of Biometrics and Identity Management – was tasked with creating a system to capture biometrics and make sure individuals weren’t on a watch list. It took just a couple of years for biometric entry to be deployed at airports nationwide.
Biometric entry has existed at borders for almost a decade, but biometric exit still hasn’t taken off
It was fairly straightforward because of the architecture of our nation’s airports. They are designed to ensure that foreign travelers go through checkpoints upon entry and that traveler information is gathered and checked before entering the country. But exiting from international airports is a different beast.
The same law that mandated biometric entry also called for a biometric exit system. Collecting biometrics at the time of exit would help ensure that the traveler has officially departed the U.S. Implementing a biometric exit system, however, has been an incredibly difficult challenge, one that remains allusive to this day.
Much of the challenge stems from how airports are laid out. When foreign travelers are departing the country checkpoints — like the ones that they encounter upon entry – don’t exist. Travelers go to an airline attendant, show a passport, go through security, get on the plane and depart. Foreign and domestic flights often share the same gates, so the same infrastructure that’s used for a foreign departure could be used for a flight to Milwaukee just minutes or hours later.
The delays implementing biometric exit have been a significant sore spot for Congress and were once again in the spotlight during a January hearing. The Senate Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee on Immigration and the National Interest held a hearing poignantly titled “Why is the Biometric Exit Tracking System Still Not in Place?” Senators expressed frustration at the lack of progress, with one actually asking, “If Disneyland can do it, why can’t the U.S. government?”
Written testimony from Homeland Security officials described the problem. Rebuilding areas in U.S. airports for departing foreign flights is one solution, but it would cost billions of dollars. The other commonly cited option is a brute force approach that involves hiring officers to manually inspect outgoing travelers. Based on pilot program experience, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) would likely need seven to nine officers to handle just one large aircraft. In total this approach would require 3,400 additional officers at an average annual cost of $790 million.
In the past decade Homeland Security has piloted more than a dozen different approaches to biometric exit. An early program included CBP officers standing at departure gates wearing biometric scanners and other hardware to track departures. This Robocop approach was deemed inefficient.
Improved Biometric Exit technology yielding promising results
Pilots since then have been more sophisticated, with recent projects testing different technologies and biometric modalities at land border crossing and airports, says Kim Mills, director at the Entry/Exit Transformation Office in the Office of Field Operations for U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
A big part of the recent progress is a combination of improved technology with reduced costs, says Mills. In 2009 CBP conducted a pilot at Detroit Metropolitan Airport where officers captured travel document data, fingerprints and other information from departing foreign travelers at select gates. Detroit had some gates with jet ways that led to large rooms, if you were a departing foreign traveler you were routed to one of these rooms where your exit data was captured.
While the solution worked, it wasn’t ideal due to the logistics of the gate. There wasn’t real-time connectivity with a back end system and it was labor intensive. CBP had to have seven officers processing travelers at a time to make sure a flight wasn’t delayed, explains Mills. At Detroit this might be feasible because there are not that many international flights at one time, but it’s a different story at airports like New York’s JFK where 37 flights may depart at once. “It wasn’t financially feasible because of the cost of the CBP officers,” she says.
But CBP took the premise from that pilot and built on it with new technology, adding a better handheld device that would work in an airport gate situation. The system uses an off-the-shelf smartphone with add-on hardware that captures the fingerprint and requisite biographical data. It has real-time connectivity to a back end system so officers can be notified if there’s a problem. Currently, it is being tested at 10 airports across the U.S.
One new option uses a smartphone with add-on hardware to capture fingerprints and biographical data
Later this year, CBP plans to deploy a biometric exit field trial that will test the collection of face and iris images from foreign nationals departing from U.S. airports. This program is intended to help determine the feasibility of collecting biometrics on the move.
By land and sea too
While airports might get a lot of the attention, land border crossings are also exploring new technology. Otay Mesa in California started testing facial and iris recognition at land crossings early this year. Some 16,000 travelers cross the U.S. and Mexico border at Otay Mesa every day.
Travelers register their travel documents – either Passport or SENTRI cards – at a kiosk where facial and iris biometrics are also captured. Both the Passport and SENTRI cards use long-range RFID technology that transmits an identification number at a range of about 20 feet.
After registering in the program enrolled travelers then walk through different lanes that scan the identity document and authenticate the individual with the facial or iris biometric, Mills says. Some of the biometrics are captured while the traveler is walking, while others require them to stop and look at a scanner. “The system will reach back into the database and do a one-to-one comparison to see if the captured information matches what was previously enrolled,” she says.
While the mobile devices at airports and the Otay Mesa land border test new technologies, CBP is also working with Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate on additional new concepts for both biometric entry and exit, says Mills.
Science and Technology runs a test facility in Maryland that can be easily reconfigured for different entry and exit schemes in a somewhat real world setting. “Each day, we can run 1,300 people though this from different countries and different ages to see how they react,” Mills says.
Though biometric exit has taken far longer than its entry counterpart, the complex challenges are being addressed through the creative use of advancing technologies. CBP will continue to test different systems and approaches in its ongoing attempt to strengthen exit procedures.