Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Securing Borders with Biometrics

Can biometrics technologies secure national borders? If so, which applications are best suited to the purpose? A&S Magazine finds out.

Starting in October, the U.S. government will issue visas to only those foreign citizens who have machine-readable, tamper-resistant passports.

This worldwide Biometrics Visa Program began in September last year, and all U.S. visa-issuing offices abroad are required to implement the program. It is mandatory that applicants for U.S. visas aged 14 to 80 be fingerprinted.

“Since the Sept. 11 attacks, there has been renewed emphasis on securing U.S. borders. Biometrics measures are being implemented to ensure not only the safety of American citizens, but also protection of foreign visitors,” said Charles Bennett, chief of the consular section at the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT).

AIT is one of the last few U.S. visa-issuing offices to begin collecting electronic fingerprints for immigrant and nonimmigrant visa applicants, he added.

Beginning in mid-September, visa applicants in AIT will need to have their two index fingers scanned in an inkless, electronic process at the start of the interview. Collecting fingerprints should add no more than one minute to the application process and, in most cases, will take only seconds.

Electronic fingerprint data will be stored in a database and be available to Department of Homeland Security immigration officers at ports of entry in the U.S. AIT claimed that biometrics visas will facilitate rapid and precise identification, as well as more secure processing of travelers.

Applicants have found that it is such a quick process, and does not affect total processing time, observed Karin Lang, chief of the nonimmigrant visa unit at AIT.

More to Come

According to Bennett, biometrics is a sophisticated technology; the technical challenge is to ensure everything is working properly.

As such, AIT had a team of experts install related solutions; the process took less than a week. After installation, the installation team stayed on site a few weeks to ensure seamless operations.

Fingerprint scanning may mean more biometrics applications in the future. “There have been discussions about increasing the number of fingerprints scanned from two to eight fingers,” said Bennett, who pointed out that false rejection rates may increase as the database grows larger; scanning more fingers will, thus, beef up accuracy.

In addition, some U.S. embassies are trying facial-recognition technology, but it is still in the experimental stage, added Lang. However, no specific timeframe has been given on these new deployments.

“The U.S. is adopting biometrics aggressively because it has been the hardest hit by terrorist acts and has to respond to it,” said Angelia Tan, sales director of IDLink Systems Pte. Ltd., a biometrics company headquartered in Singapore. The company also has offices in Malaysia, India and the Middle East.

However, other countries are also deploying similar measures, including Thailand, Australia, Hong Kong, Canada, Holland and the U.K, to name a few. “I believe that Singapore is also working on this at the present, but it has not yet decided to incorporate fingerprint or facial features into the passport identification system,” said Tan.

“Implementing a protocol of such magnitude and scale nationwide and globally is not a one-day event; it is going to take a couple of years. Along the way, it will be progressive and the technology will continue to grow,” she stressed.

Rise of Facial Recognition

According to Tan, biometrics is a better way to go than signatures, PINs or cards because it involves individual body parts. As such, level of security is higher.

“It will be and has to be the trend for a nation to adopt biometrics to secure its borders,” she stated, while positing that biometrics security will eventually become an international protocol.

Though fingerprint scanning is the most convenient and economical form of biometrics, Tan explained that facial recognition is probably the best choice for homeland security.

“The advantages of facial recognition are vast compared with other forms of biometrics as it is non-intrusive. Facial recognition is acceptable across the board because it is directly verifiable with IDs and photos, and getting facial images is not as controversial as collecting fingerprints. Fingerprint collection is often viewed as a form of criminal-offense protocol,” she concluded.

With the upgrade to newer three-dimensional (3-D) facial-recognition technology, national identification will become much more in-depth especially in getting 3-D images to match individual photos; it will be the dominant application in the future, Tan added.

On the other hand, use of both facial and fingerprint technologies to secure national borders is likely as well since this type of double security and authentication will be almost impossible to foul, said Tan.

Agreeing with Tan, Alfred Sng, general manager of Ingersoll Rand’s security and safety division for South Asia, said fingerprint scanning is still delicate.

Machine false-rejection rates are comparatively higher as people may have sweaty or oily fingers, and this can cause delays. As such, other technologies, such as iris recognition and hand geometry, are possible candidates for center stage, said Sng.

Iris recognition, said Sng, has the advantage in that there is no direct contact between eyes and scanner, while hand-geometry readers have been proven a robust 3-D technology able to work under extreme environments.

Authorities always look at verification speed, features and ease of use when employing biometrics solutions. As such, installation of dual biometrics solutions will offer an even higher level of authorization, Sng noted.

“You must have systems, which are both effective and efficient. A lot of people are looking into system effectiveness but neglecting efficiency,” he stressed.

Challenges

Hurdles, however, remain.

The challenges are to convince and educate the public on biometrics. The technology is generally misconceived as being very expensive and unreachable, said Tan, while clarifying that this is no longer true as costs have dropped dramatically during the past five years. It is now more economical to implement a biometrics solution than a common card-and-PIN one.

“As terrorist threats persist, people are more aware of the benefits of biometrics. In two to three years’ time, it will be in everybody’s book.”

Her sentiments are supported by Helen Chua, director of the systems integration group at NEC Solutions Asia Pacific Pte. Ltd.

“With any form of biometrics, people have to be comfortable because privacy is a concern. It is a privacy-versus-protection issue,” she said.

Terrorist acts have made people realize that it is better to protect themselves and compromise on privacy to a certain extent. Over time, these challenges will diminish as biometrics becomes part of people’s everyday lives, Chua added.

In Sng’s view, though, biometrics has yet to take off fully in border control, at least for now.

Authorities, including immigration and customs personnel, need to find better ways to manage identity.

Homeland security involves two countries and with the massive numbers entering and leaving, there must be seamless communication and cooperation for successful implementation, Sng advised.

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