TAMPA, Fla.—Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has begun the expansion of an ongoing pilot program that collects fingerprints of some foreign nationals as they depart the country from airports in the United States, with the goal being to assess the strength of biometrics in ensuring that these individuals have left the country, agency officials say.

The testing of the biometric exit (BE) mobile began in July at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and in September in Chicago, Houston, and Dulles International Airport near Washington, D.C. By Christmas, the plan is to have BE Mobile deployed at the 10 largest international airports in the U.S.,  Kim Mills, director of CBP’s Office Entry-Exit Transformation (EXT), tells HSR at the annual Global Identity Summit sponsored by AFCEA.

Once all the pilots are running, CBP will collect data for four months to obtain a “statistical sampling” to assess how much more capability biometrics adds to the current biographic-based exit process used for departing foreign nationals, Mills says.

Under a congressional mandate, the Department of Homeland Security in 2004 awarded Accenture [ACN] a multi-billion dollar contract to establish a biometric entry process for foreign nationals arriving to the United States, and to build up an existing database to store and match fingerprints of these people. The overall program was called US-VISIT and the database is called IDENT.

Congress also directed that a biometric exit system be established but that task has proven difficult for a number of reasons over the years, including high costs and the maturity of the technology so that it doesn’t interfere with the departure process of flights.

The purpose of a biometric exit system is to help law enforcement teams perform outbound inspections and to confirm the departure of foreign nationals.

The BE Mobile pilots use CBP collection teams stationed on the jet ways of select international flights. Only about 10 percent of the departing foreign nationals that normally would be required to submit a biometric are being sampled. CBP, in some cases, is also using intelligence to target some flights to collect biometrics of foreign nationals for law enforcement purposes, according to Michael Hardin, the deputy director of the EXT Office.

The BE Mobile pilots will feed into another ongoing effort being co-managed by CBP and the DHS Science and Technology Directorate called the Apex Air Entry-Exit Re-engineering (AEER) program.

“The Apex is ‘How can I do this?’” Mills says. “It is giving us the foundation on how can I deploy a biometric exit. [It looks] at all the different technologies and how would I insert them into operations.”

BE Mobile, on the other hand, she says, will provide the data to assess how much more capability there is with a biometric exit system versus one that relies solely on biographic data.

The AEER program had been expected to conduct a pilot test at an airport beginning in early 2016, but Mills says that with the data collection just beginning under BE Mobile, which will inform the Apex effort, that airport pilot will begin much later.

As for BE Mobile, Mills and Hardin say that the pilot testing so far in Atlanta is showing that verifying the identity of departing foreign nationals isn’t disrupting the passenger boarding process. However, the pilot testing is using CBP mobile enforcement teams, which is expensive because it is labor intensive.

Hardin says a potential biometric exit solution like BE Mobile is unlikely to be used at airports with a lot of international flights daily, although such a system might be feasible at airports with fewer international flights. The problem, says John Wagner, deputy assistant commissioner for CBP’s Office of Field Operations, is that using this solution would require hiring thousands of additional CBP officers.

For BE Mobile, CBP is using technology provided by Australia’s Grabba International that integrates with Samsung smart phones to collect fingerprints for matching.

This “gives us real-time enforcement queries and a real-time one-to-one verification of the individual,” Mill says. Hardin adds that “The officers really like it” because of the ability to get the real-time feedback in the exit environment.

The EXT Office is also looking at enhancements to the current entry process, including additional biometrics that can be captured, stored and matched. Mills says that in addition to fingerprints, her office is developing requirements for face and iris capture and recognition.

This year, CBP conducted a facial recognition pilot of U.S. citizens arriving in the United States through Dulles airport from international flights. For that testing, which was integrated by Unisys [UIS], CBP used standalone camera systems to verify the identity of persons by comparing the captured image against the image stored on the computer chip in their ePassports.

The pilot “worked great for us,” Wagner says during a keynote address at the conference. The testing allowed CBP to link individuals to their ePassports. “It was quick, it was easy,” he says.

While that pilot has been completed, Mills says there is interest in expanding this project elsewhere.

The current IDENT system is based on fingerprints, although Mills says her office wants face and iris images added to the database when it is upgraded or replaced. The database is managed by the DHS Office of Biometric Identity Management (OBIM), which has been studying a replacement system to add more biometric modalities, a larger database, and other enhanced capabilities.

While the Dulles face recognition pilot relied on standalone systems that verified matched the photo to the image stored in the ePassport, Mills says that the goal is to rely on the backend storage and matching capabilities managed by OBIM, which will make it easier to put camera systems at more arrival lanes.

In addition to the face recognition and BE Mobile pilots, EXT Office in November hopes to begin a face and iris recognition pilot on non-U.S. citizens entering and exiting the pedestrian crossing at the Otay Mesa port of entry in San Diego.

Wagner says that biometrics are built into the agency’s strategic vision and that mobile capabilities “open a world of flexibility,” adding that “we’ll look for inbound uses” with the mobile platform too.

Regarding the use of biometrics in exit, Wagner, has he has said before, says the technology works. But, he adds, it’s where the technology is deployed to ensure the foreign nationals have actually boarded the plane and left the country. Wagner prefers that biometric exit systems be deployed in the boarding area without delaying flights and that is quick and easy for travelers to use while considering the mix of foreign nationals and U.S. citizens.

“With biographic records we can confirm 90-something percent of arrivals and departures,” Wagner says. “The biometrics allows us to confirm that the person actually left.”