Coast Guard looks to build on at sea use of biometrics

Oct. 20, 2008
Test applications yield success with identification technology

TAMPA, Fla.--Continued success with the deployment of biometric technology aboard small Coast Guard cutters operating in the Mona Passage is prompting the service to look for additional enhancements to the technology and expanded deployments, a service official says.

Earlier this year, the Coast Guard expanded the use of its Biometrics at Sea System program to the South Florida straits after operating the fingerprint technology aboard its cutters in the Mona Pass for a year. Now intelligence needs are causing the service to consider using the handheld devices with its Deployable Operations Groups, which board other vessels at sea, Tom Amerson, the Coast Guard's lead on the biometrics project, says at the annual Biometrics Consortium Conference here last month.

Any devices the Deployable Operations Groups operate would have to be comfortable and convenient because these teams often have to climb over the side of a vessel they are boarding, Amerson says. So far in the Mona Passage deployment, which is an 80 mile wide channel of water between the Dominican Republic and the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, the Coast Guard has interdicted nearly 2,000 Dominican migrants attempting to illegally cross the water to get to Puerto Rico. Of those, 1,951 persons have been fingerprinted and had their pictures taken.

While the migrants are still aboard a cutter, their fingerprints are checked against the Department of Homeland Security's U.S. VISIT database to see if they are wanted in the U.S. for a crime, are a suspected terrorist, or if they were previously caught attempting to cross the Mona Pass. Of the 1,951 persons fingerprinted, there have been 459 matches, representing a 23 percent hit rate. Of those, 171 people have been held for prosecution and the conviction rate so far has been 100 percent.

Prior to the biometrics deployment interdictions in the Mona Pass typically led to one prosecution per year.

And since the Coast Guard began fingerprinting Dominican migrants it has intercepted at sea, the flow of illegal migrants across the Mona Passage has dropped to about 25 percent of what it was before, Amerson says. It's impossible to say if the biometrics program has been the sole contributor to the decline in illegal migration but the Coast Guard actively advertises in the Dominican Republic about the fingerprinting program and the potential consequences for migrants who are caught, he says.

In addition to the possible deployment of fingerprint devices with the Deployable Operations Groups, the Coast Guard would like to further enhance the Biometrics At Sea Systems program. One upgrade would be going from the current capture of two fingerprints to capturing all 10 fingerprints on a person, Amerson says. This would be a demonstration project. It would also improve the chances of obtaining matches against the U.S. VISIT database. Attempting to go to 10 print capture is a tough requirement. Amerson points out that often there may be between 60-80 migrants that have been intercepted and brought aboard the relatively small fantail of a 110-foot Island class Coast Guard cutter, which has a crew of 16. So the devices have to still be mobile, operate in rough sea conditions, sometimes in a crowd, and possibly in bad weather, he says.

The Coast Guard would also like to expand its database searches beyond U.S. VISIT to include the Defense Department's Automated Biometric Identification System (ABIS) and the FBI's Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS). Including ABIS and IAFIS databases would allow searches against millions of additional records of criminals and possible terrorists.

In addition to searches against the U.S. VISIT database, new fingerprint records collected at sea are enrolled in the repository.

When the Coast Guard began the biometrics collection program at sea it relied on portions of the U.S. VISIT database stored locally on a computer onboard the individual cutters. That's no longer the case as all searches are done via an INMARSAT satellite link so that the entire database is searched with the result being a 10 percent increase in matches, Amerson says. And the results come back within 20 minutes, which is well within the operational window of the cutter crews, he says.

Separate from the Biometrics at Sea System program, the Coast Guard is looking to improve the communications bandwidth aboard its small cutters. Amerson says this will help the biometrics program if it eventually goes to a 10-print capture because the additional data may require higher bandwidth to submit the searches against the database.

For the Mona Pass project the Coast Guard has used handheld fingerprint devices supplied by L-1 Identity Solutions [ID], DataStrip, and MaxID. Right now the service is using the L-1 device aboard 13 cutters operating from South Florida. The MaxID device is currently being used in the Mona Pass. The service uses two devices per cutter.

All of the devices that Coast Guard has been using have worked very well, Amerson says. There haven't been any failures due to their use in the salt water environment and none of the devices has shown any signs of corrosion, he says A few have been broken through normal usage and one thumb drive--which is used to transfer data from the fingerprint device to an onboard computer--has also been broken, but this is normal, he adds.

"We've been surprised by the ruggedness of the systems," he says. Science Applications International Corp. [SAI] has helped the Coast Guard manage the program.

In additional to its use of biometrics at sea, the Coast Guard will soon be using handheld fingerprint readers at seaports in the U.S. to enforce port access control regulations under the Transportation Worker Identification Credential program. Last month the service awarded SAIC a $2.3 million contract for up to 300 fingerprint-enable smart card readers.

Initially the Coast Guard is acquiring 69 of the units but has the option to buy all 300. The handheld devices are being supplied to SAIC by DataStrip. Given the Coast Guard's increasing use of biometrics technology, the service is looking to open a biometrics program office in FY '10. This office will formalize the service's biometrics programs and also help plan the way ahead for the use of the technology, Amerson says.