Jan 15 2008

Coast Guard Uses Biometric Technology to Identify Illegal Border Crossers in the Caribbean

Coast Guard matches digital fingerprints to nab wanted offenders and deter repeat border crossers.

In just four days last winter, the Coast Guard intercepted 200 migrants attempting to cross the Mona Pass, the difficult sea passage between the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico.

In just four days last winter, the Coast Guard intercepted 200 migrants attempting to cross the Mona Pass, the difficult sea passage between the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico.

This is not the first time some of these migrants have entered the United States illegally, and some are wanted for serious crimes committed in American territory. But the Coast Guard has rarely been able to identify with certainty the people they are rescuing. After receiving food, water and medical attention, most migrants are repatriated to the Dominican Republic, where they might make plans to board another boat that will brave the Mona Pass yet another day.

“A lot of times, we don’t know who we’re dealing with on the back of our cutters,” says Lt. Cmdr. Dave Burns, chief of law enforcement for the Coast Guard’s Sector San Juan in Puerto Rico. “If these people are trying to enter illegally, that’s a criminal offense, and they should be prosecuted for it. In the past, it has been a revolving door — they might claim they were lost fishing, and we ended up taking them back. There was no risk or deterrent for them not to cross.”

But for the last year, five Coast Guard patrol boats in San Juan have been equipped with handheld devices that let the crews capture digital fingerprints and facial photographs of each migrant they interdict at sea. Working with the Homeland Security Department’s U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology program for the multiphase pilot, the Coast Guard can compare migrants’ biometric data against US-VISIT’s extensive IDENT database, which holds information about wanted criminals, immigration violators and people who have otherwise encountered government authorities in the past.

More than 40 percent of all the undocumented aliens interdicted by the Coast Guard since fiscal 2004 have tried to enter the United States through the Mona Pass. In recent years, as many as 7,000 to 10,000 migrants have traversed these waters annually, often in handmade, unseaworthy and overloaded boats called yolas. The numbers could be even greater — no one can be sure how many vessels and lives have been lost.

“If I took you to the time from May 2005 to May 2006, we had one prosecution involving a yola where people were capsized and died,” Burns says. Since May 2006, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Puerto Rico has prosecuted more than 80 people, and “70 of those are a direct result of this biometrics program.”

But achieving those results required a lot of work: The Coast Guard and US-VISIT (and other agencies) established agreements to share data. The Coast Guard also designed and developed biometrics and communication equipment that could survive exposure to saltwater and sea air, and finally it created a marketing campaign to accompany its pilot.

Brokering Data Deals

Photo: Ricardo Castrodad / Coast Guard
Lt. Cmdr. Dave Burns in San Juan says the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Puerto Rico has prosecuted more than 80 people since May 2006, and “70 of those are a direct result of this biometrics program.”

Initially for the Biometrics at Sea project, Coast Guard crew in San Juan captured digital fingerprints and photos of interdicted migrants and matched the prints against a slice of the IDENT database downloaded onto a secure notebook PC. The extract included 750,000 to 800,000 sets of prints selected regionally to include recidivists and people under deportation orders, convicted of aggravated felonies or appearing on watch lists of known and suspected terrorists.

But in the pilot’s second phase, cutter crews began transmitting migrants’ encrypted biometric information via satellite for comparison against the entire IDENT database of 90 million prints, which includes files on 3.2 million people on watch lists. The cutter can get an answer back within two minutes. The initial concerns that the cutters would be unable to maintain satellite connectivity in an active sea to transmit the data streams “simply has not been a problem,” says Dr. Thomas Amerson, principal scientist at the Coast Guard R&D Center in Groton, Conn.

245 (or 20%)

The migrants whose biometric matches indicated some kind of criminal history in the United States

To securely share sensitive data, the system required strong interagency communication and agreements. With backing from the Office of Law Enforcement and operational law group, the R&D Center, led by Amerson in partnership with Science Applications International Corp., embarked on a thorough wants and needs assessment.

“We were looking for high-level support, as well as that of the sailors in the fleet,” Amerson says. “We went to different units out on the water, encountering people in drug operations and migrant operations and security boarding of foreign commercial vessels. We talked to even very junior people involved in the work. We put on the equipment that they wore. We learned a lot about the challenges that they have in their jobs and how and to what extent they would use biometrics if they were available.”

Amerson and his team assembled a set of partners at Coast Guard headquarters who could navigate any obstacle.

Photo: Coast Guard
Officers aboard a cutter in the Mona Pass capture a fingerprint of a would-be border crosser.

“Whenever there were issues and challenges, whether they had a technical or legal or policy or operational component — it was rare to have just one kind of challenge — we had people who could address each of those components and come together to provide a unified response,” he says.

The partnerships extend across agencies, both civilian and military, and a variety of contractors, Amerson says. By his count, upward of 160 people have “put their hands on the project to move it forward.”

Protecting privacy was the number one objective, says Paul Hunter, former project manager for Biometrics at Sea for US-VISIT. For instance, during the first phase, the process of getting US-VISIT data to the Coast Guard cutters without having a physically secure link was complicated. “We could supply the data, but they had to interpret that data,” Hunter says. “We flew down to see where the notebook would be located, and the physical and technical security was impressive.”

Rugged by Design

As for the technology, nothing new was required, but the project did require repackaging existing components and data into a system that could withstand maritime conditions and support quick information exchanges. The R&D Center crafted portable handheld devices for the collection of digital fingerprints and photographs and operating hardware and software.

For US-VISIT, Customs and Border Protection has used kiosks in airports for more than five years, but they were much too large and heavy to place on board a small patrol boat. Then, there are the salt, wet fingers, ropes, lines, sizable swells and migrants, who might not be too willing to share their fingerprints.

Photo: Andrew Kist
To field the test systems alone, it took more than 160 people from more than a dozen agencies, says Dr. Thomas Amerson of the Coast Guard R&D Center in Groton, Conn.

“The prints aren’t the neat ones we might have working in an office,” says Cmdr. Gregory Buxa, who formerly worked on the Biometrics at Sea project for the Coast Guard’s Office of Law Enforcement. “Could we even collect a fingerprint that’s good enough to send off? Also, there was no T1 line with high-speed Internet to every cutter, and it’s difficult to put a big satellite antenna on a tiny cutter — it wouldn’t be seaworthy. That’s where the technology gaps lay.”

Amerson and his team were able to shrink the US-VISIT kiosk technology into a “marinized and ruggedized” handheld device that could get wet and knocked around, yet still do the same things. Once the cutters were retrofitted with the necessary satellite gear, US-VISIT developed eXtensible Markup Language protocols for e-mail transmissions to accept the Coast Guard’s satellite communications to its database in Rockville, Md.

“That’s when the big hits started coming in,” says US-VISIT Director Robert Mocny.

The Deterrent Effect

The return on investment thus far has been in lives saved. “Once we started catching the bad guys, yola traffic dropped dramatically. That was the motivation for the whole team,” Hunter says. “We wanted this to work because we wanted to save lives. I don’t think you can put a price on that.”

Certainly the flow of migrants in the Mona Pass has decreased. In fiscal 2005, the Coast Guard was dealing with about 10,000 migrants; in 2006, about 7,000; and at the end of this past September, the numbered hovered at just more than 5,000.

More on Biometrics:

What about using biometrics to secure access to data while traveling, working from home or offsite? To read about notebooks with embedded fingerprint scanners, click here.

Take Part — Virtually

In the Mona Pass, off the coast of San Juan, Puerto Rico, the Coast Guard finds success in identifying repeat illegal border crossers and fugitives from the law using a prototype biometrics application. Click here to view the slideshow.

Photo: Ricardo Castrodad / Coast Guard
The ability to quickly check criminal histories means “there’s no way we’ll go out there and just pick up migrants and take them back,” says Lt. Cmdr. Adam Chamie aboard the Coast Guard cutter Key Largo.

But Burns acknowledges that other dynamics might also be at play. “Are biometrics and prosecutions the reasons why the numbers are down? It’s hard to tell,” he says. “We hope that’s having an impact. Could it be economic factors in the Dominican Republic or here? Yes.”

Biometrics technology is just one piece of the puzzle that helps the Coast Guard complete its mission. The support of Customs and Border Protection, the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the Dominican Republic Navy and their intelligence also make it possible, Burns says. “The tool is very important, but without these other pieces, it would be a struggle to have the results we’ve had.”

Aggressive public awareness campaigns about the program in the Dominican Republic also are making would-be illegal border crossers think twice about taking to the sea. “You have to ask yourself why these people are trying to come to the U.S. illegally,” Burns says. “It’s because they can’t come legally. It’s no surprise that a lot of these people are matches. We’re keeping out people we don’t want to be here. We say, ‘Now when you come across the Mona Pass, we’re going to take fingerprints, and for repeat offenders, we’re going to prosecute you.’ That has had an impact.”

Coast Guard crew morale has had a boost along with the positive results of Biometrics at Sea, says Lt. Cmdr. Adam Chamie, commanding officer for the cutter Key Largo, one of five 110-foot patrol boats operating out of Sector San Juan that use the new tools.

“I’d be surprised if it doesn’t continue to spread throughout maritime law enforcement. Now that it’s been turned on, it can’t be turned off,” he says. “There’s no way we’ll go out there and just pick up migrants and take them back.”


<p>Photo: Tasha Tully / Coast Guard</p>