Trump administration's focus on border security puts biometrics in the spotlight

March 24, 2017
President's recent push for biometric entry-exit tracking of travelers could be a sign of things to come for the technology

Earlier this year, just a week into his presidency, Donald Trump caused a furor when he issued an executive order that temporarily banned citizens from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the Unites States. While much of the media attention surrounding the order centered on the chaos and confusion it caused among travelers and the subsequent court battle that ensued, one of the lesser-known provisions in the order, which called for the Department of Homeland Security to implement a biometric entry-exit tracking system for all travelers to the country, became an immediate source of concern for those who live and work around the nation’s borders with Canada and Mexico.

"This would just devastate western New York," Ron Rienas, general manager of the Peace Bridge Authority, told The Buffalo News shortly after the order was issued. "It would shut down the border. It just makes no sense."

The president later scaled back the order – dropping the requirement that "all travelers" receive a biometric scan – but it does provide some insight into how the administration intends to leverage the latest technologies to bolster border security.

Given the number of entry points into the United States, be it land crossings, airports or seaports, Steve Thies, CEO of Integrated Biometrics, says having an effective border control system that can quickly verify the identity of travelers is essential, and that biometric technology presents the only viable option for such a such a solution currently.

“If you take the whole system and build it from the ground up, it becomes a lot easier to come into an infrastructure that was designed around places like Ellis Island, which was built over 100 years ago and had no controls,” Thies says. “Biometrics are clearly a part of that solution, and they provide both accuracy and convenience. The convenience factor for biometrics, although it has not always been readily available, has emerged in the last three or four years with rise of small, hand-held readers and kiosk devices. Quite frankly, the technology for fingerprint and iris scanning that are used in smartphones, there are 'big brothers' to those technologies that work really well, but it is the rest of the system and infrastructure of identity management and people throughput that comes into play. The technology is ready to go.”

Bob Eckel, CEO of MorphoTrust USA, agrees, adding that any system used for entry-exit tracking needs to be easily adaptable and configurable to all or most ports, regardless of the technology infrastructure capabilities, physical environment constraints or passenger volumes. But, most importantly, he says it must be cost-effective.

“An advanced biometric entry/exit solution – one that employs multiple modalities of biometrics such as fingerprint identification, face recognition and iris recognition – will allow travelers to assert their identity, making it easy to enter and exit the U.S., while simultaneously reducing the risk of travelers using fraudulent documents and forged identities,” Eckel says. “The inclusion of multiple modalities is essential to accommodating the wide variety of scenarios that an entry-exit system may need to handle. Not all biometric modalities are appropriate or for all border crossing scenarios.”

Preferred Modalities

While there have been numerous biometric identifiers introduced into access control products through the years, the ones that have proven to be the most effective have been fingerprint and iris recognition and, more recently, facial recognition. Thies believes the two that will win out when it comes to border entry-exit tracking are fingerprint and facial recognition.

“There is plenty of data on those two, but in the modality race, fingerprints have historically been the most convenient and offered a very high-degree of accuracy. You can collect a lot of data from ten fingers, so fingerprints have been where the industry has gotten its strongest traction and recognition for what can be done,” Thies says. “There are all sorts of things that people are trying to use – portions of the face, heartbeats, there’s probably 20 different modalities – but if I was going to rank them, I would put fingerprint, face and iris in that order.”

In the end, Eckel says the preferred modality will be application specific depending on the security, cost and usability factors. “When high accuracy is required, a system can fuse together multiple biometric modalities to improve biometric match accuracy. When device cost is a factor, solutions will likely migrate towards leveraging a user’s existing camera phone to capture and match face or even fingerprint,” Eckel explains. “The quality of mobile device cameras will continue to improve, providing higher resolution capture as well as 3D sensing and modeling. We continue to evolve our multi-modal biometric platform to be able to more quickly and more accurately search extremely large biometric galleries. This is very important for use cases where individuals must be processed quickly and accurately, such as at the border and airports.”

Addressing Misconceptions

Although the integration of fingerprint sensors and iris readers with smartphones has helped to familiarize and make people more comfortable with using biometric authentication solutions, the technology is still plagued, to a degree, by some lingering misconceptions. One of the most common, according to Thies, stems from science fiction movies and the idea that someone could assume another person’s identity by obtaining their fingerprints. With that being said; however, Thies believes there should be genuine concern as it pertains to hackers and their ability to tap into people’s private information, including their biometric identifiers.

“You cannot deny the power of evil and the power of hackers in this world," Thies says. "For every step forward the world takes in improving identity solutions for people crossing borders and gaining social services, there is a hacker crowd out there trying to figure out how they can take it back half a step. It is clearly a more difficult technology to try and fool than passports, ID cards and other things we carry in our back pockets.” 

Eckel says there are also still some misconceptions, both good and bad, as it pertains to the accuracy of biometric matching.

“In the past, some biometric systems, including face recognition, where thought to have poor accuracy compared to fingerprint. Contrary to this belief, most biometrics can be extremely accurate, but they are, of course, heavily dependent upon the quality of the biometric capture,” Eckel says. “Poor biometric capture quality will increase the false-rejection rate of the system, resulting in user inconvenience and potentially lower throughput. This user inconvenience can be partially reclaimed at the expense of increasing the false match rate, which usually equates to lower security or more manual intervention. Over the last decade, algorithms have improved to compensate for much of the accuracy loss attributed to poor quality captures. This is true for iris recognition, latent fingerprint matching, and especially face recognition. All of these modalities today provide good accuracy while not sacrificing ease of use.”

Another prevailing belief, according to Eckel, is that biometric technology is too expensive and thus not a cost-effective solution for identity verification. Eckel says the price of biometric hardware and software continues to decrease. He adds that some solutions, such as face-matching technology, can be cheaper to use in some cases than traditional fingerprint-based systems. Additionally, Eckel says there are some issues related to trust surrounding biometrics.

“Many people associate the presence of a biometric with security as a 1-to-1 relationship. There is no doubt that a biometric factor introduces a far better opportunity to relate a person with an identity than ever before, but that can only be true when we can be sure that the biometric in use was either present when the identity was proofed or was added later during a process that ensured the individuals was highly authenticated before adding the biometric factor,” Eckel adds. “At the end of the day, an authentication can only be as strong as the underlying identity. We see biometrics as an ideal means of linking real people with these high-value proofing events. The combination of the two opens up immense possibilities for individuals and those who wish to securely transact with them.”

Moving Forward

It is clear from the president’s recent executive orders – be it enhanced vetting of travelers or the construction of a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border – that security technology is going to be in high-demand within the government and homeland security sector for the next four years, and biometrics figure to play a prominent role.

“Biometrics will continue to play an important role in vetting travelers who are coming to the U.S. from other countries because these systems provide an accurate and reliable user authentication method," Eckel says. "They could today help to aid the facial checks performed by the Custom’s and Border Protection agents by providing an accurate and unbiased assessment that the traveler is indeed the registered document owner.”

The technology itself will also likely evolve as its applications become more ubiquitous in the years ahead, according to Thies. “We’re all becoming familiar with using biometrics on our smartphones and I think the smartphone is going to become a Swiss army knife as it relates to identity in the future. We already use it for certain financial transactions and I think you will see more and more databases that are cloud-based databases will require fingerprints to gain access and conduct transactions whatever those may be,” Thies says. “We’ll see a strong cross-industry mobilization of the technology which will mean high-performance smartphones and/or handheld device for high-performance applications and low-performance products for low-performance applications.”

Joel Griffin is the Editor of and a veteran security journalist. You can reach him at [email protected].