U.S. plans biometrics for border control

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) this week offered the first public details of a proposed border-control system that will use biometric technology to authenticate the identities of visitors and immigrants entering the U.S.

A request for proposals from technology vendors is scheduled to be issued by the fall, and deployment will begin by year’s end, said Asa Hutchinson, undersecretary for border and transportation security at the DHS. The agency has allocated US$400 million in funding for the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indication Technology (VISIT) system, Hutchinson said.

The centerpiece of VISIT, he said, will be biometric identifiers that the DHS hopes will help authorities confirm the identities of foreign visitors, check them for possible criminal histories and track their movements more closely.

Starting next January, the DHS will authenticate a visitor’s identity through a minimum of two biometric identifiers and then check the identity against terrorist and criminal watch lists. Fingerprints and photographs will be used at first, Hutchinson said. As the technology is perfected, additional identifiers, such as scans of irises or facial features, may be added.

Hutchinson didn’t disclose details about how VISIT will be configured. But he said the system will also capture data about visitors’ immigrant and citizenship status, nationalities, countries of residence and U.S. addresses.

Eventually, that data will be integrated with information in the Student Exchange Visitor Information System, which is operated by universities to track foreign students. In addition, the data will be analyzed for visa violations and other irregularities by a new Office for Compliance within the DHS Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Hutchinson said during a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

However, Rafi Ron, a former chief security officer for the Israeli Airport Authority, said at this month’s Terror & Technology online conference that the effort to improve border security at U.S. airports is focused too heavily on technology.

Ron, who now runs a Tel Aviv-based consultancy called New Age Aviation Security, advocates a broad security program that includes human-behavior analysis techniques in addition to biometrics.

Although IT projects like the Transportation Security Administration’s proposed CAPPS II data mining system will provide some passenger-profiling capabilities, Ron said their reliance on information stored in databases is a weak point. “There are no global databases that refer to . . . profiles of people who may become terrorists,” he said.

At Boston’s Logan International Airport, which signed a $500,000 contract with Ron’s firm last year, undercover Massachusetts State Police officers now roam the terminals and parking garages looking for specific behavior patterns, said Jose Juves, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Port Authority, which manages the airport.