State's Amin presses for expanded use of biometrics

Thursday - 11/4/2010, 7:22am EDT

WFED's Max Cacas

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By Max Cacas
Reporter
Federal News Radio

In order to better protect the nation's security, one of the State Department's top IT officials says Americans need better biometrics in the visa and passport process.

Kirit Amin, chief information officer with the State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs, said that fingerprints are fine, but if the government really wants to do a bulletproof job of recording and verifying someone's identity, the solution is as close as the eyes on your face.

"I love iris," Amin said during AFCEA Law Enforcement IT Day conference in Bethesda, Md. Wednesday, referring to the process by which a photograph is taken of the unique pattern of structures inside the cornea.

"Iris scanning has come a long way in the last two-to-three years," he said. "It's not only very accurate, but it has a smaller footprint than facial recognition. But it's bigger than that. It's non-intrusive."

Amin said the scanned image of the iris can be recorded from 4-to-6 feet away.

He added that "iris-in-motion," or the recording/scanning of someone's iris while they are walking, also is possible. Amin said one day international travelers could be scanned as they leave an airplane and have their identity verified while walking down the jetway.

In order to use iris scanning, however, Amin said State must make a significant change in the way it issues passports since Americans are now able to apply for passports and their renewals by mail.

Amin said the Bureau of Consular Affairs has a lot of experience using biometrics for identity verification. For one thing, they are sitting on the largest facial recognition database in the world. He said his agency has a database of 120 million images.

Amin said State has gained some important experience with iris scanning by taking advantage of a Congressional mandate to issue special immigrant visas to certain Iraqis who have been loyal to the United States during the Iraq War -- something that he calls a "scary prospect."

When the program started, he said he approached the Pentagon, which was managing the security side of the special immigrant visa program, to use iris scanning.

"One of the things we started doing in Baghdad. The DoD has a huge iris database in the theater that they have developed over the last five-to-six years," he said. "We entered into negotiations with the Department of Defense, and said, 'here's what we're going to do.'"

DoD was happy to share resources because they have the database and are not using it.

"We embarked on this pilot in Baghdad, doing the fingerprints, the (full) facial and the iris. And it worked like a charm," he said. "So now, I am pushing to do facial and iris and fingerprints all across the board."

But Amin also said the addition of iris scanning to the passport and visa processing has its challenges to overcome, not the least of which is bureaucratic intransigence.

He said he learned that first hand when it came to using full facial recognition to confirm identity.

"I've been trying to go full-facial recognition for passports since I've been there," he said. "They wouldn't do it. I was having fights with my passport office. 'It's not worth it, it's not necessary.' Until last year, when the Government Accountability Office did a sting operation on the passports. They issued 4-for-4. Whoa…wake up call! GAO says, 'You will do facial recognition.' Guess what they're telling me today. 'I want full facial recognition, 100 percent, at all agencies."

In fact, Amin said officials are belatedly confirming that using facial recognition for identity verification works.

"The deputy assistant secretary for the passport office stopped me last week, and said, 'Oh, this is mighty, because guess what's happening?" Amin said. "They're catching people otherwise they would have issued those passports, if not for facial recognition."

For now, the new electronic passports issued by the State Department use only a digitally scanned full-face photograph and an electronic chip embedded in the passport book or card as a means of verifying the identity of the holder.

Amin said early last month Customs and Border Protection experimented with the use of iris scanners to track illegal immigrants as they tried to cross the southern border with Mexico.

It will take Congress to act before the image of the scanned iris becomes an approved biometric for American passports and visas.

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