fingerprint scanner (photo by G. Nino, Customs and Border Protection)

Border biometrics slow to gain traction

Although the Department of Homeland Security has made some inroads in collecting fingerprints and facial recognition scans at airports, logistical issues are slowing down efforts, a new Government Accountability Office report found.

Biometric exit systems have been successfully tested in airports and ports, which is helping reporting on  visa overstays, but infrastructure issues are particularly knotty problems for the technology, according to GAO.

Airports are not set up to readily integrate systems at locations where international travelers depart, as historically those facilities have concentrated on arriving travelers.

Land ports of entry (POEs) also have issues with the technology potentially slowing traffic volume, since travelers in those locations can be on foot, riding bicycles, or inside a variety of vehicles spread across multiple lanes at the border crossing. Although Customs and Border Protection has been collecting pedestrian biometrics at select POEs on a trial basis, getting facial recognition or other biometric information from travelers in vehicles is tricky.

DHS officials told GAO the agency began work last June with Oak Ridge National Laboratory to explore options for applying biometric capabilities to vehicle passengers leaving the country.

GAO said DHS’ trial facial recognition exit system at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport officially became the Biometric Verification System in December and is biometrically confirming selected travelers departing the country there.

DHS said CBP, which is running the system, continues to test different facial image capture devices and is working with airlines to more fully integrate it with the airline boarding process at more airports.

However, the report said that as of November 2016, CBP's plans to implement biometric exit capabilities beyond a single airport implementation by 2018 had yet to be finalized.

CBP, GAO said, is working with airlines and airports on strategies to use public/private partnerships to reduce costs and give industry more control over how a biometric exit capability is implemented at airport gates.

That collaborative approach with airlines, GAO said, would rely on airlines and airports buying cameras, facial recognition and fingerprinting capabilities to collect biometric information from passengers. CBP would be responsible for transmitting, storing and analyzing the biometric information in pursuit of enforcement actions. That approach, said GAO, represents a change in CBP’s acquisition strategy.

Because those plans and processes with airlines and airports haven’t fully developed, GAO said it is too early to assess CBP’s plans.

CBP officials told GAO that the new approach did not change the timelines for initial implementation of a biometric exit capability, but added that timelines and costs for future implementation could be impacted.

This article was first posted to FCW, a sister site to GCN.

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a senior staff writer at FCW, whose beat focuses on acquisition, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Energy.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.

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