President Donald Trump’s executive order banning travel from Muslim-majority countries is stalled in the courts, but at least one aspect is still moving forward: a biometric entry-exit tracking system that would scan travelers’ physical traits in order to log who is coming in and out of the country.
“The Secretary of Homeland Security shall expedite the completion and implementation of a biometric entry-exit tracking system for all travelers to the United States,” read the first version of the order, which called for Homeland Security secretary John Kelly to provide progress reports on the biometric entry-exit tracking system to the White House 100, 200 and 365 days after the order. In the second version, “all travelers” was changed to “in-scope travelers,” or non-citizens, and the deadlines were removed.
Homeland Security and its sub-agency, US Customs and Border Protection or CBP, have been working on biometric systems for roughly two decades with the goal of precisely tracking who is entering the country, how long they stay, and when they leave.
Any unique physical trait can be a biometric identifier, including fingerprints, DNA, voice, patterns in the eye, and what’s called a faceprint. More advanced possibilities would even allow computers to identify people by gait.
For the border, Homeland Security is focused on facial recognition, retinal scanning, and fingerprints. Facial recognition systems that compare travelers’ faces to their passport photos have already been tested at JFK and Dulles International Airport. Within a few years, retinal scanning — usually achieved by stepping up to a machine and submitting to a brief scan of one’s eyes — could be in place for international departures at most or all US airports, said Theresa Cardinal Brown, the director of immigration policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center and a former Department of Homeland Security official.
Homeland Security is focused on facial recognition, retinal scanning, and fingerprints
“At least in the airport environment, I think we’re pretty close, maybe a year or two away,” she said.
Whether the travel ban ever comes into effect or not, work on the biometric entry-exit system will continue. The system was supported and advanced by President Obama’s administration. “These processes have been in place for a lot of years,” Brown said.
But Trump’s stated interest in biometrics could motivate faster progress, and work on the system seems to be accelerating.
“I don’t think you’re seeing any immediate, ‘Oh, now we were going to have this ready in two years, but now we’ll have it ready in six months,’’ Brown said. “I think what will happen is that they will continually brief the administration, the administration will say, ‘what can we do to make this go any faster?’ Trust me, having been inside government, if you keep having to report to your boss more regularly on what you’re doing, there’s pressure to show progress.”
To that end, DHS announced on March 9 that its Office of Biometric Identity Management is seeking to award a contract to a private firm to develop a new system called Homeland Advanced Recognition Technology, or HART, that would expand its exit-entry tracking capabilities.
In 2008, the agency estimated that full implementation of biometric exit-entry at air and sea ports alone would cost $3.5 billion — a number that far exceeds the $52.8 million allotted for “investments focusing on expanding a replacement biometric identification system for DHS” in the agency’s budget for fiscal year 2017, prepared by the Obama administration.
In the 2013 Homeland Security Appropriations Act, $232 million was allocated for “automation modernization” of immigration and customs enforcement and another $191 million was allocated to the Office of Biometric Identity Management.
DHS did not respond to questions seeking further specifics about the biometrics program.
We already have some biometric entry tracking, as most international arrivals are fingerprinted, Brown said. Homeland Security says it does not store biometric data for US citizens, but does store the data on non-citizens for 75 years. Retinal scanning at airports will be relatively manageable, Brown says, likely taking place while passengers are at gates or on jetways. This would prevent further delays at TSA check-ins, she said, and ensure that the passengers tracked are actually getting on the flights for which they are ticketed.
“The first milestone is, can we implement biometric exit at airports?” Brown said. “That is the closest thing that we are to getting done and right, and certainly what CBP is focused on.”
Land and sea borders
The ability to gather biometric exit data at sea and land borders is farther off, because those borders are broader and less organized, particularly the land border.
“On things like cruise ships, they have seaports thats look like airports, but for cargo it might be a little harder,” Brown explained. “And then the land environment is the toughest one, and I think we’re still a ways away from a comprehensive exit solution at the land borders. Every land border configuration is different. You have pedestrians at some places. You have trucks, you have vehicles. At most places in the country we don’t have exit infrastructure — when you drive out of the country you drive at speed until you encounter inspections from the other country on the other side of the border.”
Naturally, the idea that the government is collecting biometric data from people has raised serious concerns among privacy advocates, including the American Civil Liberties Union. “A biometric is a way to identify someone based on physical characteristics: fingerprints, DNA, retinas, voice, face, or even gait, among others,” the ACLU’s website says, speaking of biometrics generally, including their use in law enforcement. “These simple measurements add up to an extraordinary threat to privacy when they are collected, analyzed, and stored in readily searchable databases.”
“The first milestone is, can we implement biometric exit at airports?”
CBP’s recent record has hardly assuaged these anxieties. The agency has raised objections in recent years by granting itself expanding surveillance powers.
Brown, the former DHS official, pushed back on that. “There is a privacy office at DHS, and all new technologies that collect any type of personally identifiable information have to go through the privacy office, particularly if it’s collected through US citizens,” she said. “I know that DHS takes its responsibility to protect personally identifiable information very seriously.”
The transition into biometrics at airports continues to move forward apace, with DHS planning to test facial recognition at Atlanta-Hartsfield Airport later this year, and seeking public-private partnerships to develop more facial scan capabilities.
“CBP is now in the process of establishing a Biometric Entry-Exit Program of Record,” the agency said in an update issued on March 3. “CBP is committed to delivering a solution at the top Gateway Airports beginning in 2018.”