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Securing our borders: Biometrics at sea

Written by Lt. j.g. Al Sowers, Coast Guard’s Office of C4 & Sensors Capabilities
Photos courtesy of U.S. Coast Guard 



A boat crew from Coast Guard Cutter Vigorous approaches a 25-foot yola with 90 Haitian migrants aboard, 20 miles northeast of Ile de La Tortue, Haiti.

The U.S. Coast Guard is the first-line protector of our nation’s 95,000 miles of coastline. In its law enforcement mission, verifying the identity of foreign nationals detained aboard a Coast Guard vessel following an interdiction or boarding at sea is especially important. Helping boarding team members to rapidly identify suspected migrants or smugglers at sea is one key piece of technology – biometrics.

As a relative newcomer to the technology, Nov. 19 marks the five-year anniversary of the first ever biometric taken at sea by the Coast Guard. Led by the Coast Guard’s Operations Directorate and Research and Development Center, the Coast Guard established a pilot project aboard its cutters operating in The Mona Passage, west of Puerto Rico, in November 2006. Increasing demands on law enforcement, homeland security and defense missions highlighted the need for expanded use and more advanced technologies to collect and transfer biometric data.
 

A Coast Guard boarding officer captures a fingerprint with biometric technology.

Today, the Biometrics at Sea System is being used aboard 20 Coast Guard cutters operating in The Mona Passage and southern Florida. Coast Guard Patrol Forces in Southwest Asia, supporting Operation New Dawn, are also in the process of implementing mobile biometric capabilities.

 A biometric profile consists of biographic data, finger prints and a facial portrait. The biometric file is then sent through the Department of Homeland Security biometric database, where it is searched against their stored files. The results of the search are then sent back to the Coast Guard for proper law enforcement action to be taken.

Lt j.g. Ken Franklin, commanding officer of Coast Guard cutter Dolphin, currently uses the Biometrics at Sea System aboard his 87-foot patrol boat.

“Biometrics at Sea has increased our situational awareness aboard the cutter,” said Franklin. “The quicker we can collect and transmit biometrics data, the quicker we know amplifying information regarding migrants and suspected smugglers. We use this information to adjust our security posture and ultimately attain disposition.”

While the system has been used for the past five years, the Coast Guard is looking to improve its capability in the near future. Testing is currently underway for the service to upgrade to the 10-print system, which is fast becoming the international standard for law enforcement. The 10-print system, consisting of all 10 fingers, would be a dramatic improvement from the current two-print system that the Coast Guard uses now. The Coast Guard is also researching the possible implementation of adding facial and iris recognition to the 10-print system.

Robert Mocny, director of U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology, said the biometrics check against the Automated Biometric Identification System allows the Coast Guard to quickly identify migrants for such things as previous deportation orders or criminal warrants.

 

Today, biometrics at sea are being used aboard 20 Coast Guard cutters operating in the Mona Passage and southern Florida.

“This partnership at sea serves as a valuable deterrent to prevent those from risking their lives by taking a dangerous voyage to the U.S.,” said Mocny. “We know biometrics is the wave of the future as far as identification and US-VISIT will continue to support the Coast Guard as they explore the use of other biometrics at sea such as face and iris.”

Since the Biometric at Sea System was implemented in 2006, the Coast Guard has collected more than 4,000 biometrics, resulting in more than 850 prosecutions. Additionally, illegal migration flow in The Mona Passage is down nearly 75 percent. In 2011 alone, the system has helped facilitate the prosecution of more than 85 individuals for human smuggling, illegal entry or illegal re-entry into the U.S.

With the success of the Biometrics at Sea System, the Coast Guard’s Office of Law Enforcement looks forward to expanding the use of biometrics to other sections of the maritime border which will help the service take another step in DHS’s comprehensive strategy to secure the nation’s borders.

Published by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Washington, D.C.
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