Coast Guard Looks To Expand Sea Biometrics Pilot

BALTIMORE -- A trial begun last year by the Coast Guard that features the use of fingerprint collection and database search during alien migrant interdiction operations in the Mona Passage has proven to be successful and the service is mulling its options in terms of expanding its areas and missions for the use of biometrics, Coast Guard and industry officials said recently.

The officials wouldn't say what the new mission sets or Areas of Responsibility would be for widening the use of biometrics but said the expanded program would begin early next year.

The Coast Guard's Biometric Identification At Sea Pilot Project has been going on since last November. Coast Guard cutter's and surveillance aircraft operating in the Mona Passage--a treacherous 80-mile strait of water between the Dominican Republic and the United States territory of Puerto Rico--patrol for Dominicans illegally attempting to enter Puerto Rico.

For the pilot program, typically a single cutter is equipped with the Integrated Biometric Identification System supplied by L-1 Identity Solutions [ID]. The cutter has two IBIS units, each of which is used to collect images of a migrant's two index fingers and face. The collected fingerprint images are then searched via a satellite link against the Department of Homeland Security's U.S. VISIT fingerprint database, called IDENT. If no match is found, the new prints are enrolled in the database.

If a match is found, that begins a decisionmaking process among Coast Guard officials on shore and other government agencies such as the U.S. Attorney's office and Border Patrol about whether some of the migrants should face prosecution or be repatriated, Christina O'Laughlin, a security analyst with SAIC [SAI], which is supporting the Coast Guard project, said earlier this week at the Biometrics Consortium Conference.

Before the project began last year, the Coast Guard first did an aggressive public affairs and diplomacy campaign regarding the pending biometrics program in the Dominican Republic to deter its citizens from attempting to cross the Mona Passage for Puerto Rico, Lt. Mario Teixeira of the Coast Guard's Research and Development Center, said at the conference.

"Without deliberate consequences, there was no deterrent to migrant flow," Teixeira said. The threat, and reality, of being able to prosecute illegal aliens serves as a deterrent, he added.

Prior to the start of the biometrics pilot, the Coast Guard had no way to determine the identity of illegal migrants it interdicted at sea and thus no way to determine who might be repeat offenders or who might have existing criminal histories in the U.S. However, since the program's inception, it has proven its worth, the O'Laughlin and Teixeira said.

In FY '06 just a few illegal migrants interdicted in the Mona Passage were prosecuted by the United States. However, as of Aug. 3, 69 migrants who were captured and interrogated using biometrics have been prosecuted in FY '07, according to briefing charts used by O'Laughlin. None of these are terrorists, but some are prior felons, she said.

As of the early August, the Coast Guard has collected over 1,000 biometric records of Dominicans caught while transiting the Mona Passage. Of patrols that have resulted in interdictions, over 80 percent have registered a hit when comparing collected biometrics against IDENT, O'Laughlin said.

A telling statistic of the possible impact the biometrics program is having on migration across the Mona Passage is a 40 percent reduction in migrant flow, although other factors could be at play here as well. Still, the success of the program has led to several high level briefings, including Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Thad Allen, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and even President Bush.

Going forward, the Coast Guard plans to use biometric collection devices from two more companies as it seeks better capability in the maritime environment, Tom Amerson, the Coast Guard's lead on the project, told sister publication Defense Daily. The service plans to retain the IBIS devices but also will use devices supplied by Datastrip Inc., which is the U.S. division of Britain's Datastrip Ltd., and MaxID.

Amerson said that some of the enhanced performance features the Coast Guard wants for its at-sea biometrics trials include longer battery life and more suitability for the marine environment.