INTERVIEW: John Mears, Director, IBIA

INTERVIEW: John Mears, Director, IBIAThe International Biometrics + Identity Association (IBIA) has long been fighting for the implementation of a biometric exit program in the United States. Recently, the IBIA released a position paper on the topic, addressing old misconceptions that have stalled the program in the past, and urging the Department of Homeland Security to finally fulfill the mandate. Peter O’Neill, president of FindBiometrics, recently spoke with John Mears, Director, IBIA, exclusively about this topic. The conversation offers some background on the need for biometric exit, details some of the challenges in implementing such a program, why the modern method of using only biographic data to track traveler exits is insufficient, and much more.

Read the full interview below.


Peter O’Neill, President, FindBiometrics (FB): The IBIA recently released a position paper regarding biometric U.S. entry/exit; can you start off with some background on this issue for our readers please?

John Mears, Board of Directors, IBIA: Sure Peter, I’d be happy to. Thank you for having me here today. The concept for the US-VISIT program began to take shape when Congress started looking at foreign visitors to the U.S., and wanted to establish accountability for who goes in and out of the country. Congress formalized the program in 1996 when it enacted the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act. That act required DOJ within two years to set up an automated arrival and departure system to maintain records of who was actually coming into and going out of the country. At that time, the ‘going out’ part was related to visa overstays. Later, when US-VISIT started operating, it very successfully fingerprinted and identified foreign visitors coming into the U.S., but not upon their exit.

The need for enhancements to the system acquired new urgency after the 9/11 attacks in 2001. As a result of that, and recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Report, Congress took a number of actions culminating in the 9/11 Commission Act of 2007, which required the Department of Homeland Security to implement biometric exit controls. Fast forwarding to today, I’m happy to observe that there is now serious consideration of what is needed to accomplish these mandates.

This is reflected in the June 30, 2016 testimony by DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson before the Senate Judiciary Committee, where he made his strongest statement to-date supporting a biometric exit, stating “it is time to do this” and that a biometric-based exit could be in place in key airports by 2018.

FB: You talked a little about the some of the reasons, but can we explore more what some of the benefits of an additional exit position would be?

IBIA:  A prominent case that underscores the need for a biometric exit is the case of Tamarlan Tsarnaev, the Boston Marathon bomber who left to go to Russia to connect up with some terrorists at one point prior to the events of April 15, 2013. The record of his U.S. border exit was lost as a result of a biographic-only exit check that included a misspelling of his name and an error in typing his birthdate. In this day and age, when migration across our borders is a major concern, biographics are necessary but not sufficient, as the Tsarnaev case shows. In addition, there are a number of wants and warrants on people who routinely use falsified names and perhaps even stolen credentials to transit our borders. These people need to be caught before they board planes, potentially exposing the traveling public to increased risk.

FB: You mentioned the use of biometric and biographical data, can you discuss a little bit about that particular issue? Every vertical market – banks to hospitals and enterprises – is moving to biometrics.  What is the delay? What has been the holdup here?

IBIA:  In this particular case it is a change in process. The required process changes require changes in supporting infrastructure, and this isn’t always easy. Let’s look at the travel industry and look at airports as an example. There is no uniform mechanism to process a person biometrically when they exit the country through an international airport or seaport. At present, travelers are tracked only by their biographic entries on lists provided by the carriers. With a biometric verification on exit, some means of collection would need to be provided close to the departure point – the jetway or dock – in order to assure that the person actually left. That will require some infrastructure changes. Mobile or handheld verification, though available, carries a large labor cost. In fact, prior cost estimates for U.S. biometric exit were daunting, as they assumed a high fraction of attended or manual biometric exit collection, and did not account for recent advances in stand-off collection capability, cost reductions, and performance increases.

FB:  This is information that is readily available, I mean you now have biometric entry and exit programs in a lot of countries – UK, Germany, France, and Australia – so I am surprised that cost information that is eight years old is still being used. What are the next steps then, John, for the U.S.?

IBIA:  I don’t think anyone’s still seriously considering eight year old cost information. In fact, thinking about this mandate has progressed a lot in the past 8 years. Products and solutions from the IBIA members have come a long way in both capability and cost effectiveness. As indicated in Secretary’s Johnson’s testimony, DHS officials are now fully supportive of biometric verification of exit, an important addition to prior biographics-only approaches. Congressional support is also strong, and last year Congress allocated $1 billion for a biometrics-based entry/exit system.

Other encouraging signs include more biometric trials, and the beginnings of more active procurement activity by DHS. DHS has been informally testing different approaches, both in controlled laboratory settings and in operational ports. Examples include lab operations in Maryland in the Air Entry-Exit Reengineering lab; different stand-off iris approaches to biometric pedestrian exit in Otay Mesa; and ePassport face matching trials in Dulles and JFK. CBP is now conducting a facial recognition trial in Atlanta on limited international flights. And proposals for the land-border-based Integrated Traveler Initiative procurement are due soon.

In addition, there is movement on a broader biometric entry-exit procurement that officials have said is going to be turned into a program of record between fall of this year and spring of 2017, with contract start planned in 2018. An RFI from CBP is on the street now for this project. The RFI seems to be focused only on procurement approaches, but it is a welcome and important start on the path to implementing the much-needed biometric exit.

FB:  So you are cautiously optimistic. Are there any other encouraging or strategic supporting trends you can cite?

IBIA:  There is one other important point to mention. At the recent NIST Biometric Performance Testing conference I attended, one of the presentations was on Australia’s biometric automated entry and exit experience. ICAO says by 2030 air traffic in the world is going to double, and Australia’s traffic is growing at a greater rate. As air travel increases, Australia as well as the US needs processes that can facilitate the flow of passengers within the same amount of space and probably staff. The NIST presentation specifically noted that the Sydney airport officials believe that implementing biometric entry and exit automation will process travelers fast enough so they don’t have to build out more space, which is limited. The presenter also noted that the implementation reduced their staffing requirements.

FB:  We started our discussion today to address U.S. mandates to do biometric entry and exit. Are you suggesting that there are other reasons to do this, both in the U.S. and around the world?

IBIA:  Yes, Peter, I think there are two other reasons I’d cite, one for broader stakeholder benefits, and one for extra security. Although the focus of biometric entry and exit has been as a border security enhancement, which it clearly is, there is now growing recognition that it can also provide convenience for passengers and benefits to port operators and government officials as they seek to process more travelers within the same infrastructure and staffing. I believe that our industry has solutions that can deliver such benefits to all the stakeholders, and that stakeholder outreach is imperative. Progress happens most rapidly when all the stakeholders in a new process receive benefits and are well-informed, from the travelers to the government agencies to the carriers, the port operators, and even the port retail establishments.

The other security point I’d make has to do with the security of our citizens versus just international travelers transiting our borders. International travelers are “in scope” with respect to biometric entry and exit, and U.S. citizens have only participated in voluntary biometric programs, like Global Entry, which I think is great, by the way. I think in the future there’s benefit to also biometrically verifying all U.S. citizens, against their travel credentials at least. With increased instances of false identities, falsified credentials, and stolen passports being used in international travel, threats are coming not only from foreign travelers, but also people masquerading as U.S. citizens. I like the idea of matching my face to that embedded in my ePassport to ensure it really is me, and not someone else who’s stolen my passport. I really wouldn’t like the idea of someone illegally crossing borders or otherwise engaging in criminal activity using my identity.

FB: Well John thank you for taking the time to review this very important issue and the IBIA’s position on it. Great to always hear from an industry expert on these issues.

IBIA: Thank you, Peter, it is always a pleasure to speak to you.