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Biometrics

Biometrics are unique physical characteristics, such as fingerprints, that can be used for automated recognition. At the Department of Homeland Security, biometrics are used for detecting and preventing illegal entry into the U.S., granting and administering proper immigration benefits, vetting and credentialing, facilitating legitimate travel and trade, enforcing federal laws, and enabling verification for visa applications to the U.S.

DHS provides biometric identification services to protect the Nation through its Office of Biometric Identity Management (OBIM), which supplies the technology for matching, storing, and sharing biometric data. OBIM is the lead designated provider of biometric identity services for DHS, and maintains the largest biometric repository in the U.S. Government.

This system, called the Automated Biometric Identification System or IDENT, is operated and maintained by OBIM. IDENT currently holds approximately 300 million unique identities and processes more than 400,000 biometric transactions per day.

Through biometric interoperability with the Department of Defense (DoD) and the Department of Justice (DoJ), DHS shares critical biometric information using advanced data filtering and privacy controls to support the homeland security, defense, and justice missions.

Click below to learn more about the biometric missions of the DoD, DoJ, and other U.S. Government agencies.

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Recent News and Events Related to Biometrics in Government

A biometric is a measurable biological (anatomical and physiological) and behavioral characteristic that can be used for automated recognition.

Source: From the Executive Office of the President, National Science and Technology Council, Subcommittee on Biometrics, “The National Biometrics Challenge,” September 2011.

Overview

Although automated biometric systems have only existed for a few decades, they are based on ideas that are hundreds and thousands of years old. In the mid-1800s, the rapid urbanization of the industrial revolution increased the need for formal methods of identifying people, creating a boom in biometrics. Today, biometrics are employed in law enforcement, commercial applications, migration control, civil identification, healthcare, and more.

Timeline

  • In 1892, Sir Francis Galton developed the first fingerprint classification system.

  • In 1903, New York state prisons began using fingerprints.

  • In 1960, face recognition first became semi-automated due to research by Woodrow W. Bledsoe.

  • In 1969, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) sought to automate fingerprint recognition.

  • In 1994, the Immigration and Naturalization Service developed IDENT as a law enforcement tool for U.S. Border Patrol. By 1999, IDENT contained 1.8 million biometric identities.

  • In 1999, Rafael Resendez-Ramirez, “The Railroad Killer”, was captured and linked to multiple murders. Despite multiple convictions for various offenses in the U.S. dating back to 1977 as well as seven apprehensions by U.S. Border Patrol, he was routinely permitted to voluntarily return to Mexico because Border Patrol agents were unaware that he had outstanding warrants with the FBI and local law enforcement. This case brought about a review of IDENT and calls for the integration of IDENT with the FBI’s fingerprint database.

  • In 2011, the U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security signed a Memorandum of Understanding that provided the policy framework for interoperability between the DoD's Automated Biometric Identification System (ABIS) and IDENT.

Identity Assurance

Biometrics collected by DHS and linked to specific biographic information enable a person’s identity to be established and then verified by the U.S. government. With each encounter, from applying for a visa to seeking immigration benefits or entering the United States, DHS:

  • Checks a person’s biometrics against a watch list of known or suspected terrorists, criminals, and immigration violators.
  • Checks against the entire database of fingerprints that the Department of Homeland Security has collected since OBIM began to determine if a person is using an alias and attempting to use fraudulent identification.
  • Checks a person’s biometrics against those associated with the identification document presented by the individual to ensure that the document belongs to the person presenting it and not to someone else.
  • OBIM provides the results of these checks to decision makers when and where they need it.

These services help prevent identity fraud and deprive criminals and immigration violators of the ability to cross our borders. OBIM’s systems power Biometric Facial Comparison at U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which makes existing requirements for travel more efficient. Based on biometrics alone, OBIM has helped stop thousands of people who were ineligible to enter the United States. 

Quality of Life and Security

  • Biometrics positively confirm the claimed identity of a traveler, worker, benefit applicant, or detainee.

  • Biometrics alert if an individual has derogatory information associated with their biometrics.

  • Biometrics inform if an individual previously claimed a different persona.

Identity Assurance

Biometrics collected by DoD are handled by the Defense Forensics and Biometrics Agency (DFBA). DFBA consolidates and coordinates forensics and biometrics throughout DoD in support of identity activities across a range of military operations. The ability to identify individuals using biometric technologies and forensic exploitation enhances many different mission areas, enabling DoD to:

  • Support criminal prosecutions by providing material evidence linking, or denying linkage of, a person to a hostile act or crime.

  • Screen for terrorists, foreign fighters, and insurgents who rely on anonymity to shield themselves from U.S. Forces at home and abroad.

  • Protect U.S. borders through biometrics support to joint, interagency, intelligence, and international partners from groups and individuals attempting to enter the country and do harm to the Nation and its citizens.

  • Increase the effectiveness of physical and logical access control, allowing approved individuals to gain access without cards or badges, while unauthorized persons are flagged when they present their biometrics.

Identity Assurance

DOJ provides a variety of services, information, and training involving biometrics. DOJ provides the criminal justice community with the world’s largest and most efficient electronic repository of biometric and criminal history information. DOJ has used various forms of biometric identification since its earliest days, including assuming responsibility for managing the national fingerprint collection in 1924. More recently, DOJ created the Biometric Center of Excellence to strengthen the Nation’s ability to combat crime and terrorism with state-of-the-art biometric technology and implemented the Global Collections Program, which:

  • Collects high value biometrics obtained from foreign law enforcement partners. The biometric records pertain to individuals of interest to partner countries, the United States, or the international law enforcement community, and include individuals associated with or appropriately suspected of terrorist activity, egregious crimes, or transnational criminal activity.
  • Equips a rapid deployment team through the Quick Capture Platform whose members are prepared to deploy within four hours to support national and international special security events, critical incidents, and other emergency operations with rapid identification services.
  • Offers a Mobile Biometric Application (MBA) that can be used with an FBI-issued smart phone or tablet to scan fingerprints, allowing FBI agents and task force officers to quickly determine positive identification of suspected persons, internationally and domestically, making it more conducive to conduct expeditious field operations.
  • Mandates the sharing of criminal and terrorist biometrics with the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Services Division as part of the Visa Waiver Program.

Biometrics is the measurement of physiological characteristics like – but not limited to – fingerprints, iris patterns, or facial features that can be used to identify an individual. NIST has been conducting research in the area of biometrics for over 60 years, with work on fingerprint technologies for the FBI to support law enforcement and forensics dating back to the 1960s.

With the need for improved homeland security, biometrics were identified as a key enabling technology. NIST (because of its mission and track record) supports the government-wide effort to increase the collection of good quality biometrics, to see that the data collected is appropriately shared with other agencies, and to ensure that biometric systems are accurate and interoperable.

Last Updated: 02/28/2024
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