On any given day, more than 1 million people cross U.S. borders by air, land, and sea. According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), it takes about 20 seconds to identify and verify each person’s identity using government databases to determine whether or not the individual is on a watch list or unwelcome on U.S. soil for any reason.
That’s not fast enough.
Speed and accuracy are essential to ensure a reasonable flow of travelers through airport, seaport, and land-border checkpoints, and the advent of new technologies has the potential to improve both. With the number of travelers growing annually, efficiency is essential both for the free movement of people and goods and for the security of the United States.
The Department of Homeland Security is already at work on its next-generation solution, CBP’s 007 Border Crossing Information System of Records, which aims to double current throughput.
The 007 system will combine the records CPB collects from the Advance Passenger Information System with other inputs, including biometric identifiers, such as digital fingerprint scans, palm prints, photographs, and facial and iris analysis. CBP is taking public comments on the system, which traces its origins to US-VISIT (United States Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology).US-VISIT has collected data on U.S. visitors since 2004 and has undergone numerous revisions, updates, and organizational changes since.
“Generally, the next-generation system will be faster, from the acquisition of what you’re presenting to it, to the absorption of it, to what it captures, to the processing of it,” said Shahram Orandi, chief of the Information Access Division at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), which is the lead agency establishing standards for verification and processing.
“At airports, the system can respond in seven to 10 seconds,” Orandi said. “In my opinion, we can do a little bit better than that. I think we have both the technology, and we can get better and better and better. Shrink those lines a little bit.”
Speed is a force multiplier, he said. “Every second you save on a single passenger translates into about a day’s worth of labor each day for each year,” Orandi noted. “If you save 10 seconds, that’s about two weeks of saved labor. You can free up people to do other tasks, let the machine do a little more, and they can look out for more dangerous risks.”
To accelerate the screening process, CBP is filtering out data it doesn’t need to make the border entry decision, said Matthew Schneider, assistant director of the Office of Entry/Exit Transformation at CBP.
“Border [Protection] people don’t need to know the kind of information required for naturalization,” he said. “We need to filter only the most relevant data.” And less data means faster processing.
Other speed improvements came about through automated passport readers and CBP’s Global Entry program for frequent travelers, in which volunteers get expedited entry in exchange for providing biometric and biographic details (past residences, employment, and other information) in advance to speed their processing.
Next up is finding faster, cleaner ways to verify fingerprints. Digital readers long ago replaced ink and paper. But they still require one to carefully press and roll a finger on a scanner and must be wiped clean after each use. That slows down lines. New contactless fingerprint readers, however, promise to reduce the spread of pathogens and improve speed.
One such reader is the Automated Non-contact Distance Identity-On-The-Go (ANDI-OTG) reader, produced by Advanced Optical Systems Inc., (AOS) based in Huntsville, Ala. The system captures fingerprints as individuals pass their hands through a scanner at walking speed. The traveler never has to stop. The device is being tested now at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport in the Netherlands.
Orandi said progress has been swift. “What we started out a couple of years ago was a lot of prototypes,” he said. But within the past year, production units have become available. “So the big challenge for 2015 is to test these devices and to see how they interoperate with the existing systems,” Orandi said. “That’s what we’re in the process of doing.”
NIST is working with several vendors, both testing systems and trying to develop calibration standards and standard methodologies for their use. That helps everybody, and it should accelerate adoption.
CBP is also looking to record other biometric identifiers, such as tattoos, scars, marks, palm prints and, most of all, irises.
For more than 27 years John Woods was a special agent, rising to assistant director at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Now senior director for Immigration and National Security Solutions at General Dynamics Information Technology (GDIT), Woods said digital iris scans are the most likely alternative to fingerprints.
The most definitive biometric identity verifier is DNA, and while it may be too complex and slow to be effective at border control points, it can be helpful in proving blood relationships.
“In refugee camps overseas there’s a lot of fraud related to family members,” Woods said. “One person may take on six other peoples’ children and then try to bring them all to the U.S. under a refugee package, in order to get them ahead on a line. So [U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services] has started collection of DNA to vet out these people and make sure they are truly family members.”
Passports and documentation are also becoming more sophisticated. The embedded radio frequency identification (RFID) chips in U.S. passports issued since 2006 can be identified and processed at a distance. Not only can the passport or document be verified, but officials can also use that data to access additional the information behind it in the database. Other nations are also climbing aboard the embedded RFID passport bandwagon.
“The government is pretty steadfast on using the biometric and document verification process that is in place, where they are working with countries around the world to make sure that every passport is machine-readable, it has the biometrics already embedded in the document,” Woods said.
Will paper passports ever give way to digital documentation carried in a mobile phone? Maybe.
“Mobile is growing,” said Paul Grassi, senior standards and technology advisor at NIST’s National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace. “It’s hard to point to anything that is more important than mobile.” As the number of mobile devices increases worldwide and they take on the role of digital wallet, the concept could be viable. But citizens and government agencies would both have to buy in.
Citizens may not be comfortable with the data sharing that goes on between government agencies when it comes to their identifying information. That “is a hard notion to sell,” Grassi said.
Indeed, said Nick Megna, unit chief at the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Biometrics Center of Excellence, if there is any single factor holding back progress on the speed of identity processing, it is privacy.
The challenge is proving the technology and winning over skeptics. Once that happens, scaling systems for wider use is comparatively simple.
“In my eyes, I have seen that the systems are actually quite scalable right now,” Orandi said. “So, for example, the systems are resilient enough and plastic enough that you can increase the load significantly. I think we are actually in a position that the systems are good enough to handle a sudden spike [in immigration or entry].”
Increasingly, the United States is trying to accelerate processing at borders and ports of entry by pushing controls out beyond the country’s physical borders. If biometrics can be collected at embassies or embarkation points, then CBP can be better prepared at the actual port of entry.
But whatever procedural measures are taken to expand U.S. security and verify newcomers to the country, technology will be an essential component of the effort.
“There is always the need to look for new technologies to make the system more efficient,” notes Woods.
Orandi agreed: “We need innovation and interoperability and we do want the field to progress.”
David Silverberg is a veteran government and technology journalist and a consulting editor with GovTechWorks