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DHS office emerges as biometrics hub

Nov. 5, 2013 - 12:50PM   |  
OBIM MWM 20130925
Benjamin Moore, BAE contractor and project manager, demonstrates how finger prints are manually identified at the Office of Biometric Identity Management. Demand for OBIM's services is rising. (Mike Morones / Staff)

In the world of biometrics, timing and data integrity are everything.

Ask Shonnie Lyon, acting director of the Office of Biometric Identity Management (OBIM). As head of the Homeland Security Department’s lead entity for biometric services, Lyon’s office oftentimes has minutes — or even seconds — to verify the identity of international travelers and help determine if they pose a threat to the U.S.

In response to queries from Customs and Border Protection, OBIM’s systems have 10 seconds to verify a person’s identity and ensure foreign travelers aren’t one of 7.2 million known or suspected terrorists on its watch list. When State Department employees send fingerprint queries for visa applicants, they expect a response from OBIM in 15 minutes or less. For Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the expectation is two minutes.

“We are in the job of identity assurance,” Lyon said in an interview. “When we do something, we want to have an assurance this person is who they say they are.”

The office, which until March was known as United States Visitor and Immigration Status Indicator Technology (US-VISIT), has amassed a database of some 160.2 million identities and counting.

While OBIM officials say they are not in the business of collecting biometric data, the office does store, manage and analyze hundreds of thousands of fingerprints for federal, state and local governments daily.

“We’re their data steward,” Lyon said.

Every year, between 10 million and 12 million unique identities are added to the system.

“We are looking at it from a cost-effective standpoint,” Lyon said. “How can we be able to handle the volumes we have and still be able to handle our requirements? How long do we need to store that [data]? How can we maximize the dollars we get?”

OBIM’s budget this fiscal year was $232 million with much of that going toward IT operations and maintenance. The White House proposes $241 million for 2014.

Most of the data queries between OBIM and outside agencies are machine-to-machine with little human interaction. Lyon said 99 percent of the time OBIM systems are able to search for a match against their system, and fingerprint examiners fill the gaps. Less than 1 percent of fingerprints, which works out to about 500 a day, are manually screened into the system, said Anne May, who manages the daily operations of OBIM’s system biometric support center in Arlington, Va.

Lyon’s office operates and maintains two automated identification systems, one with biometric fingerprint data and the other with biographic data, such as an individual’s name and date of birth. The latter system is the only federal system that provides information on non-U.S. citizens who stay in the country longer than their allotted time, according to OBIM.

Top of mind for Lyon’s office is maintaining the office’s IT systems and the massive amounts of data they store. OBIM is considering options for cloud-based storage and is in talks with the National Archives and Records Administration to adjust the fingerprint record retention period of 75 years based on customer needs.

While the agency wasn’t forced to furlough employees, it has reduced spending on travel and training.

“The demand for our services is increasing,” Lyon said. “How do we do that with the current systems we have and funding we have?”

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