New DHS Border Plan Scrutinized

Experts question the technical viability of the Department of Homeland Security's new biometrics-based, border-entry program.

As the Department of Homeland Security works to iron out wrinkles in its new biometrics-based, border-entry program, experts familiar with the technology and the governments efforts are raising questions about the projects viability.

The program, known as United States Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology (US VISIT) and announced last week, is designed to give the government a better picture of who is entering the country, while collecting biometric data that can be stored and used later to identify visa holders.

/zimages/3/28571.gifWhat will US VISIT cost U.S. taxpayers? Read "What Price Security? US-VISIT."

As part of the process, foreigners arriving at US-VISIT-capable airports and seaports have each of their index fingers scanned and a digital photo of their faces taken. This data is stored in a database, along with the persons visa number, and compared against so-called watch lists of known terrorists and criminals. Each time the person enters the country, another database search is done to see if any new information about the visitor has accumulated since his or her last visit.

The VISITation

Elements of the US-VISIT program

  • Digital scans of each index finger
  • Digital photo
  • Biometrics stored in database with visa number and other identifying information
  • Machine-readable visas
  • Facial recognition and iris scanning possible in the future

The project is an extension of one initiated at the old Immigration and Naturalization Service and used by the INS and U.S. embassies abroad, called IDENT. However, the project, which attempted to link criminal records with immigration entry/exit records, ran into numerous challenges, not the least of which was an inability to search the FBIs national fingerprint database.

As for US-VISIT, DHS officials said the department plans to investigate a number of options for the nationwide rollout.

"Were looking at all kinds of biometric technologies—anything thats out there," said Mike Milne, a spokesman for the Customs and Border Protection unit of DHS, in Washington, which runs the US-VISIT program. "This is the first step in a long journey. Were going to look at different technologies for the exit process as well. Thats just as important because if people dont check out on time, we need to find out whether we should go looking for them and whether weve learned any new information on them since they arrived."

The DHS hopes to have picked the vendors to deploy the system by May.

While admirable, biometrics experts say, US-VISIT faces serious technical challenges.

"The reason its so difficult is that you have to turn an analog process into a digital one," said Ram Banerjee, vice president of global solutions at ActivCard Corp., a smart-card and biometric vendor based in Fremont, Calif. "Its enormously difficult. Whats been announced [by the DHS] isnt necessarily the best way to go about it. There isnt a fingerprint application out there that can do the one-to-many searches in 15 or 30 seconds. They cant do it in real time. [If they do,] theyre going to get a lot of false positives."

Another issue observers have raised is the difficulty of connecting the DHS system to the existing law-enforcement and government infrastructure. To work at maximum efficiency, the US-VISIT system will need to be hooked into systems such as the FBIs Automated Fingerprint Identification System, as well as databases from airlines and overseas embassies.

"The data is going to come from lots of different sources. The capture, exchange and management of that much data from so many different sources is unprecedented," said Dennis Carlton, director of Washington operations for International Biometric Group, a New York-based consulting company that works with the federal government and the transportation industry. "The challenge is coming up with an efficient architecture to get the identity."