Under President Donald Trump, technology companies have started cashing in on a little-noticed government push to ramp up the use of biometric tools — such as fingerprinting and iris scanners — to track people who enter and exit the country.
Silicon Valley firms that specialize in data collection are taking advantage of a provision tucked into Mr. Trump’s executive order on immigration, which included his controversial travel ban, that called for the completion of a “Biometric Entry-Exit Tracking System” for screening travelers entering and leaving the United States. The tracking system was mandated in a 1996 immigration law passed by Congress but never fully implemented by Trump’s past three predecessors.
In Trump’s first months in office, federal courts blocked the sections of his original and revised immigration orders that called for a temporary travel ban on visitors from seven majority Muslim countries. But the rulings did not affect the provision on biometric tracking.
As the legal fight over the travel ban has continued — dominating the debate over Trump’s immigration policy and the proposed border wall — tech companies have quietly raced to snatch up lucrative government contracts from multiple agencies to develop law enforcement tools that are highly controversial in their own right.
“This marks an important milestone” for the biometric industry, said Melissa Ho, the managing director of the Silicon Valley Innovation Program, an initiative the Department of Homeland Security launched in 2015. “We’re committed to real investments in startups” working on creating biometric security tools, she said.
The growth in the industry is part of a worldwide trend. The global biometric system market is projected to grow from about $11 billion in 2015 to roughly $32 billion by 2022, according to an industry report by the firm Research and Markets. In North America, government spending is expected to account for 40 percent of the biometric industry’s market share by 2020, up from just 12 percent in 2016.
The boom in biometrics in the U.S. didn’t happen overnight. It’s the product of years of lobbying by a politically connected industry that sees an opening in a new president eager to use the latest technology to advance his immigration agenda. Yet as the industry grows, its facing fresh scrutiny from critics and Congressional lawmakers who are calling for stricter regulations on how biometric data is collected and used by the government and private sector.
Last month, on the same day the Trump administration called for bids for the construction of a wall along the border with Mexico, it also put out a request for proposals for what the White House officially labeled the “Other Border Wall,” a digital barrier requiring travelers to undergo biometric screening.
The border wall plan has stalled, after Congress did not include money for the project in its bill to fund the government through the end of the fiscal year. Still, plans to implement biometric tracking along the southern border are underway, prompting the government to start awarding contracts to high-tech companies who are poised to benefit from the administration’s immigration crackdown.
Trump is “using the best technology” as part of his immigration enforcement push, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said at a briefing Wednesday. “[Department of Homeland Security] Secretary John Kelly says it’s the most effective way to keep people out,” he added.
Jennifer Gabris, a spokesperson for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, said the agency is preparing to deploy new technology to verify travelers’ identities. “Biometric technology could possibly transform how travelers interact with airports, airlines” and customs officials, she said.
A long history of opposition and delays
Not so long ago, biometrics was the stuff of sci-fi films. But the technology is quickly becoming mainstream, said Jim Albers, a former vice president of MorphoTrust, a company that specializes in helping state motor vehicle agencies build secure databases. Albers noted that many people have grown more comfortable with biometric identification since Apple started allowing customers to unlock their iPhones with a fingerprint.
“We’ve seen it really evolve quite a bit,” Albers said. In the future, “you’ll see biometrics and identity management in big transactions” with increasing regularity, he added. “Those things are going to happen because the younger generation is going to demand it.”
In fact, biometric technology — from palm print readers and face recognition software to iris scanning and DNA tests — has already been around for years, in both the public and private sectors.
Many countries use biometric tools to identify people. But when it comes to biometrics in U.S. law enforcement, the technology has advanced in fits and starts.
In 2005, the Department of Homeland Security launched a biometric entry program that digitally fingerprinted some travelers entering the U.S. The agency has continued to test the technology in immigration enforcement, at times using temporary inspectors to perform biometric tests.
But an exit program — to match the existing entry program — has yet to be implemented, though Congress mandated a comprehensive biometric entry-exit tracking system in the “Illegal Immigration Reform and Responsibility Act,” which was signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1996.
Neither Clinton nor his successors, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, went ahead with the exit tracking system, despite mounting pressure — especially in the years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks — from Congress to act.
Figuring out the technology itself has been a stumbling block for the government.
Capturing images of faces, eyes and fingerprints has proven to be a challenge, particularly outdoors at land and sea ports of entry. To help solve the problem, Customs and Border Protection took the lead in 2013, deploying four pilot programs designed to ensure that the agency’s identity-matching algorithms were capable of accurately identifying individuals.
The Obama administration took other steps to beef up biometric tracking. In March 2015, for example, Customs and Border Protection officers tested facial recognition technology at airports as a way to verify that individuals with a U.S. passport were who they claimed to be.
In 2015, the Department of Homeland Security established an official presence in Silicon Valley with the Silicon Valley Innovation Program, headed by Ho, designed to better cultivate relationships with technology innovators.
New focus on biometrics
Under Trump, the government is accelerating the deployment of a biometric exit system, while continuing its outreach to the tech industry.
Customs and Border Protection is planning to test kiosks with facial recognition technology at departure gates at additional airports “over the course of the next few months,” said Gabris, the agency’s spokesperson. She added the push was based on a “successful biometric exit pilot” using facial recognition at the Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta last year. U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s website says “As part of the testing, travelers will present their boarding pass while their digital photo is taken. The process will take less than three seconds before travelers proceed to the passenger loading bridge to board their flight.”
What’s more, Trump has expressed support for a nationwide “E-Verify” tracking system to allow businesses to vet their employees’ immigration status and right to work in the U.S legally. As a candidate, Trump promised to create an “extreme vetting” system as part of his pledge to reduce illegal immigration.
The White House included funding for the E-Verify program in its budget proposal to Congress. The president’s budget request called for $44.1 billion for the Department of Homeland Security, a $2.8 billion increase from current spending levels. The budget deal Congress reached to avoid a government shutdown did not include many items the White House had requested, including the funding for the border wall.
Trump’s executive order on immigration called for enhanced vetting standards for immigrants, including “a database of identity documents” to make sure “applicants are who they claim to be.”
In February, Homeland Security’s innovation program in Silicon Valley awarded nearly $1 million in grants to five companies like Kiana Analytics, Inc., which processes biometric data including Wi-Fi fingerprints to predict behavior. Kiana received $179,800 from the government in March to advance its passenger screening technology.
And though Trump has spoken little of the virtual border wall, tech providers have already performed initial biometric data collection on the southern border.
As part of the federal push to expand biometrics, the Department of Homeland Security set a goal of processing 500,000 identity screenings a day nationwide, up from the current number of 300,000 screens per day, with a new program that can process each screening in less than 10 seconds.
Meanwhile, government agencies working with Silicon Valley to advance the nation’s biometric capabilities are issuing requests for proposals almost weekly.
DHS has expressed interest in testing iris capture — believed to be the most accurate way to quickly distinguish individuals — more broadly. The agency put out a call to tech companies to outline the costs of expediting biometrics to “a broader range of services to state and local law enforcement agencies.” The agency’s Silicon Valley innovation program is also seeking to purchase drones with infrared cameras and facial recognition hardware.
The Department of Homeland Security isn’t the only federal agency looking at biometric technology.
In March, the State Department put out a request for proposals for individual mobile biometric sensors, weighing three pounds, that could better handle tough terrain and last longer without a charge. In another released last month, the department encouraged tech vendors to apply for high paying contracts for new biometric scanners that are compatible with document readers. The State Department is also working to develop biometric tracking technology for the government of Mexico.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, another federal agency, launched a six-month mobile biometrics pilot program in Hawaii this month that uses smartphones to process individuals’ identities, instead of in-person immigration appointments. In Hawaii, immigrants are required to travel to Honolulu on Oahu for biometric intake and in-person interviews. The six-month pilot will equip neighboring islands – Maui, Hawaii Island and Kauai – with mobile biometric services. For these six months, immigrants of the state can travel not only to Oahu but three other islands for required biometric screenings.
And as the Trump administration pushes ahead with biometric program, state and local law enforcement groups have gotten on board.
“While a border wall or fence is a viable solution in some locations, it is only part of the solution,” said Joe Frank Martinez, the chairman of the Southwestern Border Sheriffs’ Coalition. “Our courageous, committed and well-trained men and woman must be armed with the right technologies.”
Lobbying effort pays off
The biometric industry has been building up to this moment for years, in part through a successful lobbying effort on Capitol Hill.
For instance, NTT Data, a global technology solution provider headquartered in Tokyo with an office 30 minutes outside of Washington, D.C., spent $130,000 last year lobbying members of Congress on issues related to border security and immigration. In March, the company secured a potential five-year, $34.5 million contract to assist the Justice Department in modernizing the Executive Office of Immigration Review.
Another company, Cross Match Technologies, spent $2,175,000 on lobbying between 2001 and 2014, according to the latest available data. Last month, Crossmatch, a leading biometrics firm, received a $5.8 million dollar contract from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to advance research in behavioral biometrics.
Ben Ball, the government market director for Crossmatch, said the company began collecting and developing electronic fingerprint recognition in the 1990s,and has helped the Transportation Security Administration develop the fingerprinting technology used in its PreCheck program.
The fingerprints collected through TSA PreCheck are sent to the FBI, run through a criminal database, and given to contractors and consultants working on security issues for the Department of Homeland Security.
More than four million people have signed up for the program, which for $85 allows travelers to speed through security without removing their shoes, laptops, liquids, belts or jackets for five years. Thirty airlines have also signed up for the program so far. The system took time to perfect through work with the private sector, Bell said.
“We worked with [Customs and Border Protection] and changed optics in our readers so now they can read those prints much more reliably,” Ball said. Today, “every fingerprint reader at every point of entry in the U.S. is a Cross Match reader. If you are a foreign national, you’re putting your finger on our reader.”
A regulatory wild west
As the industry has grown, regulations in Washington haven’t kept pace. But there are signs that is starting to change, as congressional lawmakers have become increasingly worried in recent months about the government’s use of biometric information.
A sign of the growing concern came last month, when the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee met to discuss law enforcement’s use of facial recognition technology.
At the hearing, a Georgetown University biometric expert shared a report showing that 16 states allow the FBI to store data on individuals’ faces without their consent. Several Republicans and Democrats on the panel appeared taken aback by the information.
Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), the committee’s outgoing chairman, went so far as to accuse the FBI of violating federal privacy laws. “You’re required by law to put out a privacy statement, and you didn’t, and now we’re supposed to trust you with hundreds of millions of people’s faces,” Chaffetz said.
Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.) said he had “zero confidence” in government’s ability to protect the biometric data of U.S. citizens.
Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.), who represents a district of upstate New York on the border with Canada, questioned Trump’s call for a national biometric system to track all travelers regardless of where they enter or exit the country. In a letter to John Kelly, the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Collins wrote that a comprehensive entry-exit system could hurt trade between the U.S. and Canada.
“I strongly support increased national security measures across our nation and commend President Trump for his swift action. However, I am concerned that an expedited implementation of this system will not take into consideration the differences in security interests at our northern and southern borders,” Collins wrote.
At the moment, there’s no federal law regulating how businesses handle the collection and use of biometric data. But some states are considering creating their own guidelines — paving the way for a tense showdown outside of Washington.
A bill under consideration in Alaska’s House of Representatives would prohibit the collection of biometric data without an individual’s consent, among other restrictions. In Connecticut, a state bill would make facial recognition illegal for marketing purposes. In Illinois, lawmakers are pushing for changes that would require entities that collect biometric data to destroy the information after a certain period of time.
The concerns point to a coming fight over biometrics that could help decide the fate of Trump’s immigration agenda.
In the meantime, despite the opposition, federal agencies are forging ahead with more biometric pilot programs. “Biometrics offer a greater degree of assurance,” said Gabris, the Customs and Border Protection spokesperson.
Correction: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story misstated the name of the Customs and Border Protection agency.