To secure U.S. borders and airports as part of an overall homeland security strategy, numerous agencies, including the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the State Department and the Defense Department have expressed interest in buying devices that scan fingerprints, eyes and facial features to match them against records in databases.
The Defense Department has issued an open call to technology companies and inventors to suggest new counterterrorism technologies, even if the products haven't been manufactured yet. But with its plea, the agency has shown its cards, vendors said.
"It…tells me that they don't have anything. They don't have an answer for this problem," said Jon Clements, a national accounts representative at Stromberg LLC, a Lake Mary, Fla., company that sells fingerprint readers for use in employee time clocks.
The role biometrics would play in a domestic security strategy remains unclear, and the value of such devices to prevent terrorism is questionable. Many doubt whether biometrics would have helped prevent the attacks of Sept. 11, for instance. And steps to deploy biometric devices at border crossings have yielded few results.
Paul Collier, executive director of the Biometric Foundation, which sponsors research into the technology, testified before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Technology, Terrorism and Government Information on Oct. 12 that while the INS has issued 5 million border crossing cards encoded with biometric data to Mexican citizens who make regular trips into the United States, they're virtually useless because the agency hasn't installed the systems to read the cards.
Kimberly Weissman, an INS spokeswoman, confirmed that "the card readers have not been deployed to the ports of entry." Weissman said the agency made a fiscal 2001 budget request for the money to buy the readers "but was denied the funding" by OMB. However, some close to the card reader project have been skeptical about the INS' commitment to the project.
"The use of biometrics in the border entry application process would significantly augment security when compared to current lookout list systems," Collier told the Senate subcommittee. But manufacturers emphasized that a biometric identification scheme only works when a person's information has already been entered into a database so it can be verified against his fingerprint or other identifier. "It's only as good as the initial enrollment," said Clements.
Unless someone was already listed in a government database as a suspect or a convicted criminal, biometrics would give no indication that he should be stopped from entering the country or boarding an aircraft. If foreign visitors enter the United States on valid visas, as the State Department has said was the case with 15 of the 19 Sept. 11 terrorists, "you're just going to have a record that they've come through," said Eric Zidenberg, vice president of Orion Scientific Systems, a Newport Beach, Calif., defense contractor that manufactures intelligence-gathering software used with biometric readers.
If a warning were issued to detain a person using a particular name attached to a unique feature such as a fingerprint, the technology could prevent that person from slipping through security, Zidenberg said, because only one name is attached to a single biological record.
However, manufacturers and officials noted that to accomplish that goal, multiple databases must be tied together so that, for example, the FBI's criminal records could be crosschecked against databases of fingerprints maintained by the INS. Today, that capability isn't in place.