Immigration, Border Security, and Biometrics: Q&A with Ben Ball

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by David Dean

WASHINGTON, D.C. & PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. -- As the first budget proposal from President Trump plays itself out over the coming weeks, areas primed to garner attention -- and possibly increased spending -- include defense, immigration and border security. How will this affect the biometrics industry and its major players? Startup TechWire talked with Ben Ball, Government Market Director for Crossmatch, a well-known identity management and secure authentication solutions provider for his take on any opportunities and obstacles this budget may present.

Q:  How has the recent focus on enhanced border immigration screening differed from the past several years? 

A:  I think we can talk about two distinct phases of immigration screening over the past decade and a half.  In the aftermath of 9/11, the focus was squarely on security.  Everyone who wanted to enter the United States was exhaustively searched against databases which were not yet fully integrated.  There was very little nuance to the system, and many procedures hadn’t yet caught up to the technology.  As a result, the logistical and public diplomacy costs were high.

Around ten years ago, the focus started to shift from security to travel facilitation.  By this time, much of the database integration and screening back-end had solidified, allowing for a new focus on efficient processing without sacrificing security.  Programs like Global Entry, Pre Check, and the Automated Passenger Kiosks helped to get people through the line while providing a robust vetting procedure.

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Ben Ball
The administration is signaling a new focus on security – “extreme vetting” is the latest term of art.  Yet there are precious few details about what this really means at an operational level.  The databases are what they are – we can only check against information we have on file.  Procedurally, adding new questions or performing redundant checks will only roll back the clock on travel facilitation, without necessarily adding any security value.  The industry is ready to help with implementation of whatever revised vision the government comes up with, but at this point the strategy has not yet filtered down to the tactical level.

Q:  What impact (if at all) is the new focus having on the biometrics industry? 

A:  I would say that the outlook is cautiously optimistic.  If the government starts to implement new programs, update existing technologies, or change its concept of operations, that would clearly be a significant opportunity.  Yet all of this is still very uncertain.

Startup TechWire 2017 Sponsorships Now AvailableTake biometric exit for example.  The original mandate for a biometric exit system dates back to 1996.  We’re still waiting for a concept of operations, let alone an actual procurement.  The new administration has expressed its intent to move forward boldly with a biometric exit system.  The two previous administrations said almost exactly the same thing.  The industry has learned to take these things in stride.

Q:  What is the mood within government agencies who you deal with regarding the immediacy or long-term need for more biometric technology to meet developing needs? 

A:  Up until the past decade or so, the government usually paid for the innovation it wanted from the market.  There was a clear incentive to build new functionality and capabilities, as demand in the government sector was strong.  The focus of government (and therefore the focus of industry) was on the long term.

Once biometric technologies achieved a baseline of functionality and reliability, government agencies started to assume that the need for longer-term development would take care of itself – that it would be in the industry’s own best interest to continue innovating.

That was when government demand took a significant dive.  The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were key drivers of demand for biometrics – once they started to wind down, the military stopped focusing on strategic needs.  At nearly the same time, sequestration drained budgets from many domestically-focused users of biometrics.  This double whammy really took a toll on the planning for long-term biometric needs, as well as the funding required to meet those needs.

We may be coming out of the doldrums, but it’s going to be a gradual process.  Agencies are once again starting to think about their long-term needs for biometrics, and realizing that the systems they bought for the long term have been surpassed by newer, more innovative products.  The top-level vision and budgetary authority have to come next.

Q:  Are there any biometric technologies that you feel are going to be more pervasive or sought-after by government agencies in the next few years?

A:  We’ve seen renewed interest in facial recognition recently, but it’s hard to tell whether this is an enduring trend or merely a passing phase.  Government customers like the idea of passive biometric collection from relatively inexpensive cameras.  What many have yet to experience is the limited reliability of facial recognition for matching at scale.  There are many applications where facial recognition is the best option, and the technology is improving very quickly.  Yet at a fundamental level, it is unlikely to replace fingerprints as the standard for assured identities any time soon.

Q:  Do you see an increased focus on using biometric technology by government agencies having any kind of "trickle-down" effect on other market sectors? 

A:  I think it’s actually the other way around.  Biometrically enabled smartphones have proven the potential of biometrics at a massive scale, and unlocked the imaginations of many government agencies about the technology’s potential.  Government agencies are looking at more and more mobile use cases, and I believe much of this interest can eventually be traced back to the iPhone.

Q:  What are the benefits of biometrics as used in immigration, border control and the like?

A:  Biometrics represent a significant leap forward from the biographic systems most countries use today.

Biometric systems allow border officials to rapidly confirm a subject’s true identity, even if it does not match the biographic details they present.  Impostors, dual nationals, and twins are all easily identified by a biometric system.  Biometric information cannot be easily mis-entered, altered, or forged—negating the data quality issues commonly associated with biographic information.

The wide use of biometrics in law enforcement also allows for rapid checks against criminal records, including both previously encountered subjects and crime scene latents, which may not be associated with an identity at all.  This is a significant advantage – one which allows border agencies to identify subjects beyond merely those they already know.

With advances in technology, we can also say that biometrics are now just as fast (if not faster) than any other kind of border control procedure.  I pay close attention to the clock on the Global Entry kiosk, and most of the time I can get through the entire process in thirty seconds or less.  With that kind of speed at the highest level of identity assurance, the case for biometrics becomes very compelling.

Q:  What challenges does an increased demand for biometrics by government agencies pose for biometric industry leaders?

A:  When demand does pick up again, the main challenge is going to be widely varying technical requirements.  Government agencies often say they want commercial off the shelf (COTS) products, but their purchasing behavior suggests otherwise.  Government use cases and workflows may appear to have common elements at a high level, but when it comes down to actually integrating biometric solutions customers usually come around to the need for customization.

If government agencies could agree on common technical standards and operating workflows for biometrics, the industry would be able to move towards more COTS-type products which would require fewer custom elements.  That would be good for everyone – costs would go down and demand would be more regular.  Yet what we’ve seen is that stove-piped legacy systems often bind government agencies to particular workflows.

The Department of Homeland Security is a positive example of an agency which is trying to address this.  A few years ago, DHS established a Joint Requirements Council with the aim of harmonizing procurements and spending across component agencies.  While it will take some time for this effort to move the market, it is a long term move towards common standards.  That’s good news for industry and the government.

Q:  Please describe any technologies your company has in place with government agencies now, how they are being used, and describe any new technologies you are developing.

A:  Crossmatch equipment is the standard for quality, reliability, and durability in government biometric applications.  Our most visible deployment is at U.S. ports of entry, where our flagship Guardian ten-print scanners process millions of travelers every day.  Crossmatch mobile solutions are also widely used throughout the government, from military operations in the field to border patrol missions.  Crossmatch software processes fingerprint background checks for many government agencies.

We’re excited about the future as well.  Government customers have long desired more flexible mobile biometric solutions, and Crossmatch is currently developing new hardware and software products to meet these evolving needs.  We continue to add new features to our core products as well, responding to the need for higher quality optics, new anti-fraud capabilities, and more user-friendly software interfaces.  Our product roadmap reflects the best of this dynamic industry, and we’re confident that our government customers are going to like what they see moving forward.

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