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EXCLUSIVE: Iris recognition brings all eyes to the border

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Proven biometric technology improves safety, security and speed at border crossings, says Tim Meyerhoff, Director Product Management & Market Development at Iris ID.

National border security is a growing and important topic as a record number of individuals attempt to gain illegal access to the US. From October 2020 to October 2021, US Customs and Border Protection (CPB) data shows that 1.7 million migrants were encountered trying to enter the country illegally, the highest number of illegal crossings recorded since the government first began documenting such entries.

Various solutions and technologies have been deployed over the years in an effort to curb these numbers, however managing security at the border is about more than just keeping bad people out – it is also about letting the right people in.

Iris recognition allows border agencies to do both, by using the latest and most accurate means of near-instant biometric identification. In fact, irises are second only to DNA in respect to the accuracy of the biometric identification methods, followed thereafter by fingerprints and faces. The iris alone has 240 recognition points, far more than fingerprint and facial technologies. Moreso, every person’s is unique, leading to fewer false positives and absolutely no opportunity for bias. And unlike ID cards and passports, a distinctive pattern is not susceptible to theft, loss, or compromise. This makes iris recognition technology highly reliable and uniquely suited to accurately authenticate and verify identities at border crossings or in the field.

The application of such technology gives border agents the ability to identify travelers quickly and accurately at security checkpoints, helping to reduce the likelihood of travelers facing long lines during the entry process. This efficiency also frees up the time and resources of agencies such as CBP and local law enforcement to locate and apprehend those who enter illegally or commit crimes. With its numerous benefits and proven track record of success, it is no wonder why iris recognition is quickly becoming the preeminent biometric solution for border applications.

Biometrics at the border: a history

Beginning in the mid-1990s, US CBP used fingerprints as a means of reducing recidivism among those illegally crossing the border. While this worked well to identify reoffenders, the process was not without its shortcomings. First, many individuals encountered in the field had fingerprints that were either worn down or intentionally damaged in a bid to evade identification. This made it impossible to capture usable fingerprints for identification or re-identification purposes. Furthermore, the process of fingerprinting suspects required prolonged physical contact with potentially dangerous offenders, putting officer safety in jeopardy.

To combat these issues, iris recognition was introduced in 2014. New developments in technology made mobile identification via the iris possible, as images could be collected quickly in the field using small, contactless cameras. This allowed border agents to create a biometric record of those crossing border and quickly identify those individuals that had been encountered attempting illegal entry before. The addition of fast, accurate recognition empowered agents with the information needed to make more informed decisions while reducing the need for prolonged physical contact.

In addition to mobile applications, iris recognition was also deployed at land border crossings in an effort to identify non-US citizens entering and exiting the country. In 2016, kiosks outfitted with iris recognition capabilities were deployed at the Otay Mesa Land Port of Entry in San Diego, California. The goal here was to record and match entry and exit records based on scans to quickly identify foreigners with expired visas. Iris scans gathered from the Otay Mesa project were then collected by CBP and stored in the Office of Biometric Identity Management (OBIM) database for subsequent matching.

Today, CBP collects up to 100,000 iris records per month to help identify those illegally crossing the border. This information is gathered and checked against other government-run biometric repositories, including the OBIM Immigration Biometric Identification System (IDENT/HART), the FBI Next Generation Identification (NGI) system and Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS). Due to the success of iris recognition under both the CBP and FBI’s NGI system, the US Department of Justice, US Department of Homeland Security and additional federal agencies are also rapidly adding records to their shared national databases.

Recognition for trusted travelers

Identifying individuals attempting illegal access is not the only reason border agencies are turning to iris recognition. The Canada Border Services Agency’s NEXUS program currently employs iris recognition technology to improve security and expedite border clearance processes between Canada and the US. Under the NEXUS program, enrolled travelers can clear customs by simply looking into a camera that uses the eye’s iris as proof of identity. Enrollment into the program takes less than two minutes and keeps customs lines moving quickly. 

Making customs processes faster, frictionless and more secure presents a win-win for both travelers and those responsible for border operations. Those entering and exiting the country can save time by avoiding long lines at land border crossings, airports and marine crossings, thus receiving a marked improvement in the overall travel experience. Operations, on the other hand, are now equipped with a solution that marries the need for top notch security and fast throughput. The iris recognition technology deployed as a part of NEXUS is also the same as that utilized by the widely recognized CLEAR trusted traveler program and that used to process an estimated three million visitors’ identities in the lead up to the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

Internal applications

In addition to public facing border applications, iris recognition can also be used internally by border agencies to improve several processes relating to physical security and workforce management. For example, using irises as a mode of biometric authentication can limit access to sensitive locations under an agency’s jurisdiction. This includes detention facilities, equipment or vehicle storage locations, offices, meeting rooms or other areas requiring tighter access control policies. Not only is iris recognition accurate and reliable, it is also touchless, reducing frequent touchpoints that are common with other methods of access control.

When used for time and attendance, iris recognition also eliminates the potential errors associated with manually calculating employee hours. Since irises are unique to every individual and virtually impossible to copy, time and attendance readers outfitted with iris recognition eliminates costly instances of time fraud. Border agencies can apply such solutions as a means of reducing payroll and administration costs since punch-in and punch-out data is read and recorded at the point of entry, timecards are eliminated, along with any discrepancies between time worked and time reported. In this way, the benefits of iris recognition are expanded beyond simply security applications to meet a variety of agency needs both externally and internally.

Iris recognition implications

With the number of individuals requesting entry to the US steadily increasing (both legally and illegally), time is of the essence for border officials. Iris recognition solutions installed at border checkpoints allow approved immigrants to enter the country quickly, thus giving officers more time and high-tech means to address those attempting access illegally.

The automation provided by iris recognition also equates greater efficiency, eliminating the need for the time and resource consuming process of fingerprint enrollments. Finally, border agencies can advance their own security and budget by applying iris recognition inside their own facilities to address some health and safety challenges. Given the proven success of iris recognition technology in a variety of existing border applications, expect to see the use of such technology become more widespread as the move to cost-effectively and safely protect our borders becomes increasingly critical.  

1-ISJ- EXCLUSIVE: Iris recognition brings all eyes to the border

Tim Meyerhoff is Director Product Management & Market Development at Iris ID. With more than 20 years in the biometric and identity management industry, Tim is highly proficient in the technical and application attributes of key biometric modalities, namely iris, face and fingerprint. Tim has experience with multiple vendors and end users in the government and commercial markets. For the past 15 years, he has specifically focused on iris and face modalities at Iris ID and has worked to deliver efficiencies to companies across many verticals including education, public safety and justice. Tim’s expertise extends to both technical and business development areas.

This article was originally published in the April edition of Security Journal Americas. To read your FREE digital edition, click here.

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