For the better part of this millennium, the US government’s use of biometrics has been largely framed in the context of anti-terrorism. The serious investments in biometric border initiatives and law enforcement after the September 11 terror attacks led to the realization of such breakthroughs as Biometric Entry/Exit, the FBI’s Next Generation Identification program, and the Department of Homeland Security’s forthcoming HART program, which is slated to become fully operational in 2023. But on day one of the 2018 Federal Identity Forum & Exposition (FedID) another use case took the spotlight during the opening presentations from the DHS: disaster relief.
Earlier this month Hurricane Florence wreaked havoc on the East Coast of the United States, causing estimated billions of dollars in damage and at least 42 deaths in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia. In the wake of the storm, biometrics played a part in vetting volunteers, contractors, and aid workers.
“FEMA is a big user of biometrics,” said Matthew Travis, Deputy Under Secretary, DHS’s National Protection and Programs Directorate during his Tuesday morning keynote presentation. When disaster strikes, FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, relies on thousands of volunteers, contractors and local partners to help in its recovery efforts.
“Biometrics is the way that we validate who’s coming in to volunteer at the time – who’s coming in to support the FEMA operation, which involves a lot of [Personally Identifiable Information] as we’re processing the initial cases that were affected by storms and disasters,” said Travis. “This hurricane season we had 45,000 biometric transactions from FEMA field kits.”
Biometric background checks are commonly used to vet persons in public trust such as school teachers, and renowned for their accuracy and efficiency. The process is generally trusted, but relatively recent high profile public debate concerning biometric checks and ride sharing services that resist mandating them for drivers has mired the topic in controversy. FEMA’s use case is therefore a bit of good press for biometric background checks, and a showcase of government identity management tech being put to use in a time of dire need.
Biometrics have been deployed for disaster relief around the world in capacities beyond background checks, helping to identify victims and bring peace to surviving families. The DHS’ emphasis on the role of biometric technology in the aftermath of Florence goes to show that the scope of identity management stretches beyond the human conflict that once defined it.
Stay posted to FindBiometrics throughout the week as we continue to report live from FedID 2018.