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Managing Editor

Biometrics by Fire

Dec 01, 20043 mins

From iris scans to fingerprints, three DHS pilot programs have created a high-profile test bed for biometrics technology

The biometrics community had been waiting for a moment like this. “Biometrics is at the forefront in our agenda for homeland security,” declared Asa Hutchinson, the Department of Homeland Security’s undersecretary for border and transportation security, at the 2004 Biometric Consortium Conference.

He wasn’t exaggerating. DHS has rolled out three major pilot programs that rely heavily on biometric technology. The programs are grabbing the eyes of advocates and activists alike because their successesor lack thereofare sure to influence the adoption of the technology nationwide.

The best-known program is the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology (US-Visit) border security program. US-Visit, which is in place at 115 major airports and 14 seaports, requires that foreign visitors have their index fingers scanned and digital photographs taken when they enter the country. This information is used to confirm the individual’s identity and also is checked against a database of known criminals and suspected terrorists.

Meanwhile, the Transportation Security Administration’s Registered Traveler program has been rolled out at five major airports. This program gives known travelers a fast lane through airport security, in hopes of allowing screeners to focus on unknown travelers who pose greater risks. The five airports are deploying different technologies and configurations to determine what works best. For instance, some systems will use both facial recognition and iris-scan technologies, while others will require only one or the other.

Finally, the seven-month prototype phase of the TSA’s Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC) program was launched in August. The TWIC is a smart card with an embedded photograph that is used to confirm the worker’s identity. The goal is to prevent unauthorized persons from gaining access to secure areas by posing as employees. TSA expects to issue cards to 150,000 workers from ground, aviation, rail and maritime facilities in six states.

M. Paul Collier, executive director of the nonprofit Biometric Foundation, says this is a step in the right direction. “Biometrics really give you two things: One is security; the other is convenience,” he says. “Biometrics are an essential tool in any personal authentication scenario.”

Privacy rights advocates, however, are increasingly wary of data being mishandled or misused. They are concerned, for instance, that information collected for legitimate usage may eventually be used for illegal means, leading to identity fraud.

But the government has plans to expand the programs. At a recent conference in San Francisco, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense Paul McHale challenged the biometrics industry to develop additional technologies, according to The San Francisco Chronicle. “Our enemies are brutal, clever and no longer in uniform,” he said. “I believe that in identifying these 21st century enemies, biometrics can play an extremely important role.”

Managing Editor

Al Sacco was a journalist, blogger and editor who covers the fast-paced mobile beat for and IDG Enterprise, with a focus on wearable tech, smartphones and tablet PCs. Al managed writers and contributors, covered news, and shared insightful expert analysis of key industry happenings. He also wrote a wide variety of tutorials and how-tos to help readers get the most out of their gadgets, and regularly offered up recommendations on software for a number of mobile platforms. Al resides in Boston and is a passionate reader, traveler, beer lover, film buff and Red Sox fan.

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