GAO wary of biometrics for border control

The U.S. General Accounting Office wants the U.S. government to plan carefully before deploying biometric identification technology at the nation's borders, saying questions about the cost of such technology and its effect on U.S. trade and personal privacy must be carefully weighed.

That statement was made by Nancy Kingsbury, managing director for applied research and methods at the GAO, before two Senate Judiciary Committee subcommittees yesterday and published in a report released by the GAO (download PDF).

The Judiciary Committee has jurisdiction over immigration and border security issues.

Kingsbury's comments were based on a November GAO report that looked at the use of biometrics for border control and on an ongoing study of challenges facing border screeners at land ports of entry, according to a GAO spokesman.

Joining biometric ID technology with automated screening systems may well assist U.S. border inspectors in reaching decisions about the admissibility of particular travelers, Kingsbury said. Biometrics might be used to create a watch list that identifies travelers who shouldn't be admitted to the country, or they could be incorporated in travel documents such as U.S. visas and passports to stem the counterfeiting and fraudulent use of those documents.

However, biometrics aren't a panacea for the border security problem, said Kingsbury. Biometric screening at the nation's official points of entry would miss the estimated 275,000 illegal immigrants to the U.S. Even for travelers who do present themselves to border screeners, biometric technology would be just one piece of a larger system that ultimately determines whether an individual gains access to the U.S.

The design of that system requires careful planning and forethought, Kingsbury said.

Among the biggest challenges facing the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in deploying biometrics is the need to define high-level goals for a redesigned border-control system. Before deploying biometric technology in a widespread way, DHS must develop a "concept of operations" that takes into account new processes needed to use the technology, the infrastructure necessary to support it and the limitations of the technology, Kingsbury said.

For example, the largest database of biometric data contains 60 million records, well shy of the 100 million to 240 million records that will likely fill a biometric visa system. Performance requirements should be developed for any technology adopted, and detailed fallback plans will be needed for when that technology fails, according to Kingsbury. In addition, policies and procedures would need to be developed to govern how a biometric watch list is maintained and updated.

Privacy and commercial concerns must also be considered, Kingsbury said. Unresolved questions remain about how biometric data collected by the government will be secured -- and about the potential for abuse when government agencies share biometric information.

In addition, the deployment of biometric screening could slow the border inspection process -- especially if equipment failures or large numbers of false positives increase the number of secondary inspections needed.

A slower inspection process could have severe effects on the U.S. economy and U.S. international relations, prompting other countries to impose similar inspections on U.S. travelers, Kingsbury said.

Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), a member of the committee, released a statement calling for the hiring of additional personnel to perform border screening and for proper training on biometric technology when and if it's deployed. Kennedy also expressed skepticism about the use of biometrics.

"The mass collection of information about all visitors to the United States isn't likely to be effective in catching terrorists, and may actually antagonize individuals whose cooperation we need more than ever," Kennedy said.

Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Terrorism, Technology, and Government Information, didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

Copyright © 2003 IDG Communications, Inc.

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