Coast Guard Expands Biometric Trial into South Florida

Based on its apparent success reducing illegal migrant traffic in the Mona Passage, the Coast Guard soon will expand a biometric pilot project to a dozen of its cutters operating out of South Florida in an attempt to deter illegal migration to the U.S. from Cuba.

Cutters operating from Sectors Miami and Key West that patrol the Straits of Florida will be equipped with two handheld Integrated Biometric Identification System (IBIS) devices supplied by L-1 Identity Solutions [ID].

The IBIS features photo capture and a single fingerprint auto capture capability.

The IBIS systems were already used in the first year of the Biometric Identification At Sea Pilot Project aboard five Coast Guard Island Class cutters operating in the Mona Passage between the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.

For that demonstration, which began last November, cutter crews that interdicted Dominicans making the hazardous voyage to Puerto Rico captured prints of each index finger of the illegal migrants and a facial photo. The fingerprints were searched aboard local databases of the larger U.S. VISIT database that were stored on a laptop computer aboard each cutter. Prints that could not be matched were then stored on the U.S. VISIT database.

Earlier this month the Department of Homeland Security and the Coast Guard presented results of the year-long trial, saying it helped reduce the flow of illegal immigration by nearly 50 percent in the Mona Passage. Biometric data was collected from 1,368 migrants 90 of those being prosecuted. In previous years migrant interdictions in the Mona Passage usually resulted in just one or two prosecutions.

The expansion of the program to other Coast Guard sectors doesn't mean the end of the pilot project in the San Juan Sector, which is in charge of patrolling the Mona Passage. However, the Coast Guard will begin testing two other handheld biometric capture devices aboard five cutters there. The devices will be supplied by two United Kingdom-based firms, Datastrip, Inc. and MaxID, Dr. Tom Amerson, the Coast Guard's lead on the project, tells TR2.

Integrating the new devices with the laptop computers on the cutters begins this week with crew training slated for next week, Amerson says. After that, the cutters will begin using the new handhelds operationally for a year just as they did the IBIS systems. Each cutter will have a Datastrip and MaxID device along with an IBIS system as a third backup option. The Coast Guard wants to continue using the IBIS devices in the San Juan Sector just so that the crews there have a backup they're comfortable with in case they run into problems, Amerson says.

One thing the Coast Guard will be assessing in the next round of the biometric pilot is the different fingerprint scanners on the Datastrip and MaxID devices. One is an optical scanner and the other is a capacitance scanner. The capacitance plate type scanner has fewer moving parts and may be more rugged but it may also be more susceptible to degradation in the marine environment, Amerson says.

The newer devices also have greater computing power than the IBIS system, which is another difference in the biometric technologies that will be tested.

"We want to see if going to a higher level computer will create an advantage in the marine environment," Amerson says. The IBIS system is based on a PDA-type computer, which still could be the ultimate solution someday, he adds.

Amerson says that getting the biometric at sea pilot going in the near future in the South Florida maritime region shouldn't be that difficult given the experience the Coast Guard has already gained with the IBIS system. Still, the crews will have to go through the requisite training with the devices and the related hardware and software that are part of the U.S. VISIT program, he says.

As for what's next, Amerson says, "We're taking a measured and deliberate approach to expanding and using biometrics."