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Iris Recognition Technology Gets High Marks at U.S. Border Crossings and Among Federal Agencies

The need for iris recognition biometrics as part of a multimodal identification system at U.S. border crossings is now a necessity for border patrol agents to process migrants accurately and quickly. Gone are the days when only a manual face match to the traveler’s provided documentation guaranteed admittance. Now, border agents are not only charged with keeping the identification process simple and secure for legitimate travelers but also with protecting the country from potential terrorist travelers who may be trying to falsify their identities.  In 2002, the U.S. Congress enacted the Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act. This law mandated that U.S. Embassies and Consulates abroad must issue only machine-readable, tamper-resistant visas and other travel and entry documents that use biometric identifiers. It was decided by the Homeland Security Council that the U.S. standard for biometric screening would be a ten-fingerprint scan.

The fingerprints that are collected in the ten-fingerprint scan are compared against fingerprints in several databases including FBI, Immigration, and DOD to perform a background check to confirm identity and/or issue visas. Since the initial enactment of the Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act and up to 2014 when Iris ID and DHS Border Patrol began a pilot program for iris enrollment and identification, the use of multimodal identification and especially face and finger multimodal biometric identification has become standard. As it relates to only using a fingerprint scan, Border Patrol and other law enforcement agencies have come to realize that fingerprints cannot be solely relied on to establish identity. This is due to the large number of first-time travelers who do not have either a facial image or fingerprint scan to compare against. Other reasons such as purposeful fingerprint mutilation or travelers who have worn fingerprints because of arduous manual labor also hinder the reliance of fingerprint alone as a mode of identification.  

In a webinar conducted by Iris ID discussing biometrics on the front line, Jason Thompson, Assistant Chief, U.S. Border Patrol says, “adding the iris modality allows us to create a biometric record on subjects whose fingerprints are less than ideal or just won’t work at all.”

Gaining entry to the United States is seen as a step to a better life for many migrants seeking asylum or for those trying to hide their true identities from authorities. It has been reported that some travelers undergo extreme acts such as facial reconstruction to change one’s appearance to go undetected. This is why it is so important to have a more accurate form of identification and authentication such as iris biometrics added.

For a little background as to how iris technology became the second tier biometric used at U.S. border crossings, it is central to understand the history between Iris ID and the FBI.  In 2014, Iris ID was contracted by the FBI to supply hardware and software components for a pilot program for iris enrollment and identification within the law enforcement and criminal justice system.  Iris collection would be part of the Next Generation Identification (NGI) Iris Service, which provides a fast, accurate and contactless biometric identification method. The Iris Service can perform an automated iris search that is used for identification at correctional facilities.  Iris collection has been added to traditional Livescan equipment which supported Fingerprint, Mugshot and Scars, Marks and Tattoos (SMT collection). Because of the success of the pilot with the FBI and DHS Border Patrol, as of September 2020, the FBI CJIS Division made the Iris Service fully operational, and DHS added iris biometrics as a secondary identification biometric.  This is significant because participating agencies will be able to search an iris image against a growing iris image repository for an automated accurate and contactless way to identify a subject. The FBI has also recommended iris to be more broadly used among all federal agencies and at the border.

Although iris images are part of all three national databases in the United Sates, iris recognition usage as a biometric tool for identification has a relatively short history in comparison to fingerprint which has the longest. Fingerprints have always been used to identify travelers, but because of the numerous difficulties that have been presented with obtaining usable fingerprints, other modes have been added as a method to increase accuracy. The undeniable precision and ease of use in terms of collecting, storing, and then validation is what is propelling iris ahead of other biometric modalities. It is a well-known fact that iris biometrics is considered to be the second most reliable biometric only behind DNA. And within law enforcement, iris biometrics can be used as a positive identification  method , whereas face biometrics are only used as an investigative tool.

While all biometrics have pros and cons, the benefits of iris technology is far more appealing with a growing number of agencies including DHS for border control being more inclined to include it. Iris recognition is the best authentication process available today because it is:

  • Stable – by 10 months of age, the unique iris pattern is formed, and it will not ever change.
  • Unique – the probability of two irises being the same is nearly impossible. In fact, even identical twins cannot have the same iris patterns.
  • Flexible – the technology easily integrates into existing security systems or can operate standalone.
  • Reliable – An iris cannot be stolen, lost or compromised.
  • Non-invasive – iris recognition, which is not retinal scanning, is completely non-contact and does not require any bright lights to be used.
  • Long Distance Capture Ready – the technology works as far as one meter away from the device.
  • Presentation Attack Detection (PAD) features liveness detection which ensures that only a living being can be identified. Showing a static image will result in a rejection.

Furthermore, iris technology will always work. Subjects wearing glasses, religious clothing such as a hijab, a hat, or facial hair can use iris technology. Even a blind person is able to be identified.

The growth of iris recognition has become more pervasive in the past several years, catching up to well established international border crossing programs including the middle east.  Hamad International Airport, Doha Qatar, uses iris biometrics at all immigration and speed gates to identify travelers from more than fifteen million people enrolled in the system. Immigration officers process a passenger in under 10 seconds – speed gates process travelers in half of that time. Qatar also uses iris biometrics at two seaports and at over five hundred border crossing points. The United States is willing to spend big and has always heavily invested in homeland security. In 2001, $16 billion was spent. In 2011 after 9/11, $69.1 billion was spent and for the 2023 fiscal year, $97.3 billion is budgeted for the Department of Homeland Security. Of course, this budget will be spread out among all the agencies, but this massive increase in spending is indicative of the level of commitment the U.S. government has to protecting the border, fighting terrorism, increasing trade and in general promoting a healthy economy. Establishing a safe border is essential in being able to control who and what enters the country. Using an accurate, fast, and reliable biometric such as iris which is virtually immune to demographic bias is critical for DHS to protect the country, increase legitimate travel and keep dangerous criminals out.