Biometric identification is a process by which biometric data of an individual such as their fingerprint, face, or iris images is submitted for search against a potentially large biometric database in order to detect whether an identity record exists for that individual. A system used for this process is called an “automated biometric identification system” (ABIS), and government agencies generally use them in two ways:
In a criminal ABIS system, biometric search is performed of large databases containing data collected over time from suspected and convicted criminals. To conduct a search, biometric data is collected either from a live suspect or from a crime scene (e.g. latent fingerprints or surveillance video). This “probe” data is compared to all the samples in a database in order to find any samples in the database that match the probe. In this way, an individual can be confidently identified or associated with a crime scene.
In a civil ABIS system, biometric search primarily serves the purpose of identity proofing and duplicate prevention for non-criminal citizens. For example, biometrics are collected during an application for an ID credential or benefits program and then used to search all records to confirm the claimed identity of the applicant, and to ensure the applicant does not already have an existing identity record in the database. Policies around storage of biometrics from civilians varies between jurisdictions.
An ABIS used for border and immigration management tends to employ elements of both a criminal and civil ABIS, in that it is used to determine if a foreign citizen requesting to visit or establish residency is either 1) misrepresenting their identity, or 2) if some aspect of their record indicates that approval of their visit warrants more careful review. There is no latent fingerprint search capability afforded in these systems; they are used only with live probe data from cooperative subjects.
ABIS in visa and asylum applicant screening
Screening of visa applicants and asylum seekers generally occur at a consulate, where agents will request identification documents (driver’s license, birth certificates, local/national IDs). They’ll also collect additional biographical data such as name, current address, and date-of-birth. Once validated, these documents and data help agents search for the applicant in criminal or immigration records to see if the applicant has committed past immigration infractions such as overstaying a visa. Part of the task is to corroborate the claimed identity data between different sources.
But identity documents can be forged and biographic data stolen in an attempt to either falsely claim someone else’s identity or to create a synthetic one. For this reason, biometric identifiers such as a fingerprint or a face can enhance traditional identity documents and biographic data.
When the applicant visits a consulate, he or she performs a biometric enrollment. A biometric search can serve to verify the applicant’s claimed identity and also checks if that person exists on any watch lists. This is an example of an ABIS at work.
Today, many countries rely on ABIS in border management. In Canada, for example, the Border Services Agency collects fingerprints and photographs from any person applying for certain visas and residency statuses. This helps confidently verify visa applicant identities and ensure that no individuals who are unfit to enter the country are allowed in.
Interagency data sharing for border management
Data sharing between different agencies further enhances the efficacy of biometrics for border management. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) manages an ABIS called IDENT. DHS maintains a database of fingerprints, photographs, names, dates of birth, and nationalities of people who have entered, attempted entry, or left the U.S. The FBI, as a department of the Department of Justice (DoJ), manages IAFIS, which stores fingerprints of criminals that have been submitted by law enforcement agencies all over the country.
After 9/11, DHS and DoJ established interoperability between IDENT and IAFIS in an attempt to improve interagency data sharing. The collaboration helped border management agents have greater visibility into a visa applicant’s past with federal, state, local, or tribal U.S. law enforcement agencies.
Biometrics are also used for border management outside of the U.S. For example, the Schengen Area is comprised of 26 European countries that don’t require member-state citizens to present passports at the border. Under the Visa Information System (VIS), migrants or travelers who apply for a visa for any of those 26 countries are subject to a fingerprint and face scan. This helps Schengen Area countries flag instances of “visa fishing,” where someone attempts to gain entry to multiple countries, sometimes under different aliases or with stolen travel documents.
Biometric verification at border checkpoints
Biometrics are highly effective for identification in border management use cases because they leverage biologically unique traits (fingerprint, face) to decisively identify individuals trying to enter the country.
Biometrics can also be used for identity verification, which is different from search in that in this application, the identity check is simply a biometric verification of a claimed identity and does not involve a search of many records.
In a way, biometrics have always been used for identity verification at border checkpoints. Each time a border agent visually compares a picture on a passport to a person entering or leaving a country, they use their face as an identifier. We could call this visual facial recognition.
Today, we can complement or even automate this process using biometric facial recognition algorithms. Passports contain an electronic chip that stores biometric and biographic data belonging to the passport holder. This information can be compared to the traveler and to the printed travel document presented at the border, verifying the legitimacy of both the document and the identity of the person who possesses it.
Learn more about biometrics-based border management