Biometrics Technology Continues to Grow

February 23, 2011
By George Seffers

U.S. government agencies continue to expand their biometric identity management capabilities and their ability to share biometrics data among the various agencies and international partners, according to government officials speaking at AFCEA's Homeland Security Conference in Washington, D.C.

 "Within the Department of Defense, this is a growth industry," says Thomas Killion, the new director of the Defense Department's Biometrics Identity Management Agency (BIMA). He adds that biometrics has already "grown up" from relatively humble beginnings at the turn of the century when the department used it primarily for securing access to information systems. "As operations grew overseas, it became more of an operational necessity to identify and track individuals in the battlespace."

The Defense Department's, Automated Biometric Identification System (ABIS) has grown exponentially in terms of the size of the database itself, how it is used and the Defense Department's ability to share information with other agencies, such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

"It is a growing database in terms of the number of entries that are in it and in our capacity to process the information," says Killion, adding that the government is moving toward a common environment in its ability to share biometrics data between agencies. "We already have substantial connections with the FBI. We have limited connectivity with DHS, but that's growing as well."

Last spring, the FBI deployed a large contingent of agents to Afghanistan, according to Dan Roberts, FBI assistant director, Criminal Justice Information Services Division. They gathered biometric data on about 9000 people in local prisons and linked 11 to the manufacture of improvised explosive devices.

For its part, DHS can now process ten fingerprints as quickly as it once processed two, says Robert Mocny, who manages the DHS United States Visitor and Immigration Status Technology (US-VISIT) program, which collects fingerprint data on all visitors to the country. In 1989, Mocny relates, it was his job to interview immigrants entering the country, and he would have to  decide based on the information he had, whether or not to let people into the United States. "I bet I let the wrong people in sometimes. Because we didn't have the full complement of information," he says, explaining that availability of biometrics data allows officials to make better decisions.

"The FBI now sends us thousands of prints a day. We make more informed decisions and terrorists and sexual predators and such are being identified every single day because of the interoperability we have with the FBI," Mocny explains. "We can now search the FBI's criminal record files-65 million in under 15 seconds. That is a tremendous step forward in both information sharing and the technical interoperability between the two systems."

Of the nearly 30,000 transactions sent to the FBI's Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS) database, 261 have been matched with known troublemakers and 91 percent of those matches were returned within 15 seconds. When it started, IAFIS was intended to handle 62,000 transactions a day. It now averages about 200,000 a day. From October 2008-January 2010, 62,000 criminal aliens have been deported, Mocny cites. And within the next year, DHS will have a similar level of data sharing capability with the Defense Department.

In addition, DHS was recently able to help the United Kingdom identify an Australian citizen who had been convicted of rape but was living in England under an assumed name and receiving asylum benefits. He has been extradited back to Australia to serve his term in prison.

Sharing biometrics data with other countries is wrought with complexities, but Roberts says that efforts with the United Kingdom, Canada and New Zealand are productive because those countries have similar capabilities and similar attitudes toward biometrics data as the United States. In fact, Canada has the same level of access to the FBI database as does the sheriff's office in Fairfax County, Virginia, he says.

All three agencies-the Defense Department, FBI and DHS-are looking to expand the types of biometrics data they can collect, to include more facial recognition, iris scans and palm prints, and may someday include other possibilities, such as scent detectors and gait analysis, which theoretically can identify an individual based on the person's walking pattern.

DHS intends to put out a series of requests for information and requests for proposals over the next year or so to improve its capabilities. The agency can do 5 million searches within a matter of seconds and needs to do 500 million searches in that time.

The FBI, meanwhile, hopes to replace its 60-pound biometrics data-gathering gear with something much smaller, lighter and more mobile. The agency is also upgrading its database with the Next Generation Identification system, another increment of which should be rolled out February 25th, offering improved accuracy and speed for matching fingerprints.

The FBI is also building a biotechnology center in West Virginia, which it will share with the other agencies and academia. It is expected to be complete in the fall of 2013.

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Very interesting article George, and refreshing to see the surge in biometrics continues to be felt across government deployments as well as sharing biometric template information across multiple countries to combat terrorism and criminal activity.

We have been hearing a lot lately about the issues that biometrics raises with violation of individual privacy rights (eg - the abolition of the National ID Card in the UK and the current petition being signed and submitted to The Council of Europe to prohibit collection of EU citizen's biometric information).

What are your thoughts on the issue of privacy violations and collecting biometric templates?

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