Since 2004, the Department of Homeland Security has been tasked with collecting biometric information on and verifying the identity of every foreign traveler entering and leaving the United States. Unfortunately, until recently, biometric technologies available to the agency weren't up to the task.
Several new pilots spearheaded by Custom and Border Protection's Entry/Exit Transformation (EXT) Office are looking to make this goal a reality by speeding up the process and making collection far less invasive, including faster fingerprinting and open-air pass-through scanners.
"It's way too labor intensive," said EXT Director Kim Mills. "We need a more innovative way of doing biometrics because we feel you can't do it by a brute-force attack."
"We need to innovate our way out," Colleen Manaher, executive director of planning, program analysis and evaluation at CBP's Office of Field Operations, agreed.
"Those are the kind of solutions that clearly could improve my process immediately," she said. "But I need industry to tell me and to drive innovation to meet my needs," rather than just the marketplace in general.
Those needs include speeding up the intake process but also the response time, Manaher explained.
Once the information is collected, "It needs to go back to a watchlist and get back to me in seconds," she said.
This is particularly true for the exit program, which has to process thousands of people as they leave the country.
As of right now, there's no infrastructure to support this work, Mills said.
However, a pilot set to begin at the Otay Mesa border crossing in San Diego in November will be capturing biometric data on-the-move.
The pedestrian outbound program will be set up in an open courtyard area to test multiple on-the-move and stop-and-pause technologies — particularly for face and iris scans — that can record biometrics as travelers walk by on their way to the gate.
"Our field trial is really going to give us a lot of insight to see if pass-through biometrics at this point is something viable for an open-air environment," Mills said.
The pilot will start in November with a 30- to 45-day enrollment period in which CBP will begin collecting face and iris data on inbound travelers.
If successful, the pedestrian scanner could be a significant part of CBP's multi-tiered plans to incorporate more biometrics into its processes at land borders and airports.
"Biometrics is our future. It's our transformative agent," Manaher said. "And we as government need to embrace a more creative, innovative and experimental mindset."