A directive for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to expedite the completion of a program to record biometrics of foreign nationals arriving to and departing from the United States was tucked away in President Donald Trump’s controversial executive order Friday suspending immigration from seven countries and a refugee admissions program.

“The Secretary of Homeland Security shall expedite the completion and implementation of a biometric entry-exit tracking system for all travelers to the United States, as recommended” by the 9/11 Commission, says the executive order, “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States.”

Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly. Photo: DHS
Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly will oversee efforts to complete a biometric exit solution for foreign travellers at U.S. ports of departure. Photo: DHS

The U.S., more than a decade ago, implemented a fingerprint-based system to record the entry of foreign nationals arriving to the U.S. as called for by the 9/11 Commission, which investigated how the 9/11 terrorists gained entry into the country and carried out the hijacking of four commercial flights. The Commission also wanted the biometric tracking system to record foreign nationals as they departed the country, but that component of the entry/exit system has proven difficult over the years.

Currently exit procedures rely on biographic checks to confirm that foreign travelers have left the U.S. per the requirements of their visas. The addition of a biometric check is expected to provide further confidence that these travelers have left the country as instructed.

Last February, former DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson directed Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to implement a biometric exit solution at U.S. airports beginning in 2018, making use of new visa fees that Congress authorized in an FY ’16 spending bill. While CBP in the past has piloted fingerprint capture systems to see if the technology is feasible in the airport environment as part of exit procedures, the agency in late 2015 and early 2016 began a more urgent and steady assessment of biometric technology for use in verifying the exit of foreign nationals at both air and land port environments.

CBP is currently using facial recognition technology to record departures of foreign travelers on one flight per day to Japan from Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport and plans to expand this data collection effort to additional flights throughout this year.

Trump’s order calls for DHS to deliver a report within 100 days on progress toward implementing the biometric entry-exit solution, followed by similar report after 200 days and another report a year from when the directive was issued. From that point, a report is due “every 180 days thereafter until the system is fully deployed and operational,” the executive order says.

Companies in the identity solutions space were encouraged by Trump’s comments during his presidential campaign calling for completion of a biometric entry-exit visa tracking system. Trump also included as part of his DHS transition team Michael Dougherty, who leads the Secure Identity & Biometrics Association and worked on immigration issues at the department during the administration of President George W. Bush.

The executive order related to more vetting and accelerating biometric exit is a “pretty positive step forward,” Benji Hutchinson, head of the Washington D.C. office for the North American division of Japan’s NEC Corp., told Defense Daily in a telephone interview on Monday. While there have been commitments by previous administrations for comprehensive biometric entry and exit solutions, the Trump administration “has made it a pillar of their platform,” Hutchinson said, adding that Trump “ran on immigration and border control.”

Hutchinson also said the requirement of regular reporting on progress in implementing the entry-exit solution is an encouraging sign.

However, an industry official from another biometrics firm told Defense Daily via an email response to questions that past attempts by Congress mandating regular reports on progress in implementing a biometric exit system were fruitless. He says DHS is still without “a blueprint for action, despite years of study.” He added that “Until the [Trump] administration decides exactly how it will implement exit, I don’t think we’ll see a lot of movement.”

CBP officials last year said that based on the testing in Atlanta and the use of facial recognition technology in tests at two other airports, this is the biometric technology of choice for an exit solution, at least in airports with a large number of international flights daily. One of the key lessons from the various biometric tests, however, is the need for the backend infrastructure to support an exit system.

Prior to Trump’s new executive order, a CBP official said at an industry conference earlier last week that the agency plans to roll out a biometric exit solution gradually using existing contracting vehicles. Industry has been expecting a larger scale effort likely involving a systems integrator.

Following the executive order, a spokeswoman for CBP told Defense Daily on Monday that there isn’t an update on how the directive impacts the path forward for biometric exit. Hutchinson said that even this seemingly gradual approach—if it holds—to rolling out an exit solution is a sign of positive momentum for expanded use of biometrics by the federal government. Under former DHS Chief Johnson, CBP’s initial focus for a biometric exit solution was for deploying systems at airports. Trump’s executive order doesn’t specify where deployments should begin.

In addition to the section on biometric entry and exit, the executive order calls for “implementing uniform screening standards for all immigration programs,” with such uniform measures as “in-person interviews, a database of identity documents proffered by applicants to ensure that duplicate documents are not used by multiple applicants…a mechanism to ensure that the applicant is who the applicant claims to be…and a mechanism to assess whether or not the applicant has the intent to commit criminal or terrorist acts after entering the United States.” An initial report from DHS, with help from the State Department, Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, is due within 60 days. Follow up reports to the White House are due in 100 and 200 days.

Separate from the executive order, industry is awaiting DHS’ release of a request for proposal (RFP) for a new biometric database that would go beyond the current fingerprint-based storage and matching system to include additional modalities, namely face and iris, over the next two to three years.

The RFP for the Homeland Advanced Recognition Technology (HART) system, originally expected last October, is now expected any day. HART will replace IDENT, which is expensive to maintain and at the limits of its storage capacity.

The HART procurement is expected to involve a system integrator and biometric matching algorithm vendors, as well as middleware suppliers. Moving to a multimodal capability is expected to generate demands for face and iris capture devices by DHS components.