The Homeland Security Department hopes to soon have real-time access to the military’s biometrics database letting them better sort out who’s who at U.S. points of entry.
The capability will be similar to what DHS is already doing with the FBI, and through it, local law enforcement agencies around the country, said Bob Mocny, director of the Homeland Security Department’s U.S. VISIT program. U.S. VISIT, the office responsible for screening foreign visitors to the U.S.-is the main repository for DHS’ biometric data. That information, mainly fingerprint data, can be shared between DHS and the criminal record system that the FBI holds at its Criminal Justice Information Services division in West Virginia.
Mocny said DHS had already proven the value of biometric information sharing through the Secure Communities program, which lets participating local law enforcement see data held in Homeland Security databases. He said that data comes in handy when law officers encounter a suspect who gives a false name.
“We can tell that police officer who is really in front of them, and the fact that they’ve been deported two or three times before and the fact that we want to put a detainer on that individual and deport them,” he said. “From October 2008 through the end of January 2011, 62,000 convicted criminal aliens have been removed because of the Secure Communities program. And that 62,000 just may not have been encountered before.”
Mocny, who spoke on a panel at last week’s AFCEA Homeland Security conference in Washington, said the information sharing is useful in both directions. Since DHS also has access to biometric data held by the FBI, its Customs and Border Protection agents can make better decisions about who to let into the country.
“Prior to a pilot in Detroit that we will now expand to other locations, we had people coming into the country with criminal history that made them ineligible to come into the country,” he said. “But they came into the country because we didn’t know about it. We can now search the FBI’s criminal master file-65 million prints-in under 15 seconds. That is a tremendous, tremendous step forward in both the idea of leveraging information sharing and the technical interoperability between the two systems.”
Mocny said he hoped DHS would be able to run similar searches against DoD biometric data by the end of this year, letting border control officials and consular officers know if the person standing in front of them is someone that the military had arrested or had contact with before-potentially even if DoD has never positively identified that person. The military’s database also includes latent fingerprint data taken from improvised explosive devices.
“The battlefield is not a nice, neat place,” said Thomas Killion, director of DoD’s Biometrics Identity Management Agency. “There’s a lot of trafficking across the globe, there are people moving across that globe, and there are certainly cases of people who have involved themselves in the wrong kinds of activities in theater and then popped up elsewhere on the globe, perhaps trying to come across the border. If we weren’t sharing this data and that were to happen, and they were to engage in activities here domestically, we would certainly hear about that in the press.” Mocny said sharing DHS biometric data with DoD already has proven itself. The two huge agencies exchange information about suspected terrorists, but using slower, more manual processes. The next step, he said, is real-time access.
“We’ll be able to get information from the warfighters, information that will inform our decision makers,” he said. “That doesn’t mean we’re not sharing information right now. Every day, every week, every month we get prints from DoD, we load them into the system. We’ve made several identifications based on latent prints. But it’s kind of interoperability on the cheap. We’re getting the data there by Buffalo drive or CD. Within about a year’s time frame we believe we’re going to have the kind of connectivity that we have with the FBI.”
Killion said although the military’s first major foray into the area a decade ago was as a means of positively identifying its own personnel and giving them access to the department’s IT systems, it has since then amassed its own large database of biometric data, including everything from fingerprints, to facial profiles, to iris scans.
“As operations overseas grew, it became more of an operational necessity to be able to identify and track individuals in the battlespace,” he said. “The fact of the matter is that that’s a growth industry for the DoD. In the future, we will need these capabilities regardless of the type of operation that we’ll be performing. Whether it’s disaster relief, whether it’s stability and support operations, whether it’s some level of limited conflict, we will need these capabilities in the field to track whose who would do us harm.”
And though the new methods of information sharing are a huge step forward, FBI assistant director Dan Roberts warned the technical implementation of biometric data sharing is the easy part. As with any interagency exchange of personally identifiable information, biometrics raises policy questions. For example, the criminal justice information system that he runs is populated by data that the FBI doesn’t legally own.
“My database is very rich with 70 million bad guys,” he said. “But we don’t own those records. They’re owned by the states, by the 18,000 law enforcement agencies across this country. They submit them to us and allow us to use them, we hold them and distribute them per their agreements with each of the states. And every state has a different law governing what records can be distributed and what they can be used for. The challenge is walking that line and making sure we’re not violating any of the states’ rights in addition the federal laws that we have.”
Homeland Security Presidential Directive 24, signed by President Bush in 2008, requires agencies to make biometric data available to one another using interoperable, integrated systems. The directive instructs agencies to include data on anyone they reasonably suspect might pose a national security threat, but to do so within existing law.
Besides meeting their statutory obligations, agencies that actually have legal custody of the data need to make sure they share it in a way that keeps it safe, said Stephanie Rowe, a former Homeland Security official who now runs the private firm Next, LLC.
“It’s easier to build an interface than it is for the [Transportation Security Administration] to say, ‘hey, you know what, CBP, we’re going to allow you to run the router for our Secure Flight program,'” she said. “Because when that router goes down and the program goes down, guess whose name is on the front page of the paper. The shade of grey that says CBP is running the router is irrelevant. As we think about interoperability and as we think about leveraging capabilities from other places, the agencies who own the programs are accountable.”
This story is part of Federal News Radio’s daily DoD Report. For more defense news, click here.
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