The recent U.S. election cycle has intensified the already significant pressure to address border protection and illegal immigration, with similar movements crystallizing in Europe. Some of the impetus is opportunistic nationalism, but concerns about vulnerable borders have been building for years as rapid globalization highlights the need for stronger controls. Given the current spotlight on national security and immigration topics, I expect to see a significant push for measurable progress on border security in 2017.
From political pontifications to the stark realities of a global refugee crisis, unprecedented human displacement due to global changes in weather, protecting national boundaries and securing ports of entry has become a top priority for many governments. With 328 ports of entry, more than 7,000 miles of borderlands and 95,000 miles of shoreline, the U.S. cannot rely on physical barricades and security checkpoints alone. In fact, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is tasked not only with catching criminals, contraband and unauthorized entry but also with enabling the efficient movement of lawful travellers and goods in and out of the country. It’s not a simple matter of building barricades but a complex one of sorting through massive haystacks to find dangerous needles.
We probably won’t see “the wall” being built along the Mexican border in 2017, but the passions that inspired the idea won’t dissipate overnight. I believe the most effective measures the U.S. government could take center on biometric data capture, ID verification, and algorithmic intelligence technologies.
While it is nearly impossible to physically secure the thousands of miles of borders and shoreline, the power of big data empowers us to weave a tighter virtual web: reducing identity fraud, tracking visas, and detecting threat patterns through advanced analytics. Disseminating and interconnecting border control technology solutions nationally and internationally will streamline and harmonize processes for lawful travellers and businesses while leaving fewer systemic gaps for bad actors to exploit.
Mobilizing these technologies in border environments will enhance the coverage, responsiveness and flexibility of field operations. Especially as biometric identity verification becomes more widespread, mobile devices and self-service kiosks in airports and customs checkpoints will enable more thorough screenings in less time.
While an increase in security personnel at airports and checkpoints would certainly help, technology solutions are rightly viewed as a powerful force multiplier. The less time required for the tedium of inspecting documents, the more security agents are free to focus on suspicious activity and behavioral indicators. Data capture is more comprehensive, accurate and immediate with chip-and-scan technology.
As the Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorism Events (CREATE) has highlighted in various studies, airport wait times have increased dramatically in recent years. CREATE studies show that reducing wait times at ports of entry positively impacts the economy. They estimate that adding just one CBP agent to each of 33 airports could increase GDP by $61.8 million and create more than 1,000 jobs. It doesn’t take much imagination to extrapolate these gains to inspection efficiencies created by more widespread use of ID verification technology.
Programs like e-Passports, online visa applications and customs declarations apps are already making a difference. The next steps include promoting more widespread adoption of e-Passport, e-Visa and trusted traveler programs; holding employers accountable via e-Verify; streamlining security checkpoints at borders and airports; and bringing U.S. programs into alignment with international standards developed by ICAO, the UN agency that works with member states and the civil aviation sector to support safe, efficient air travel around the globe.
To foster the success of such programs, government agencies like CBP and TSA must not delay in coordinating their efforts and widely deploying available identity capture and verification technology including self-service kiosks, biometric scanners and RFID passport scanners.
To get the most out of identity capture and verification solutions, the databases containing relevant information must become better integrated. Interpol, DHS, FBI, CBP, Coast Guard, TSA and state law enforcement agencies all compile records and track patterns of illicit activity. Without comprehensive intelligence sharing and reliable data integration across these agencies, there will always be gaps in our border security. With tighter integration, security agencies can produce predictive and prescriptive algorithmic intelligence that will help them prevent attacks, respond quickly and accurately to threats, deploy resources to hot spots and deter systemic abuse of visas.
One of the most pervasive immigration problems is visa overstays — visitors that travel to the U.S. legally but “disappear” on arrival, staying well past their visa expiration dates (often indefinitely). According to DHS, more than half a million people overstayed their visas in 2015 alone. Various estimates claim that overstays make up a third or more of the 10-20 million people illegally residing in the country; five of the 9/11 terrorists were in that category.
While incoming visitors are verified at point of entry, tracking their departures is much more complicated. This leads to low enforcement of overstay violations and, thus, minimal deterrence. If issued visas are “stamped” onto the e-Passport chips and integrated via database and exit biometrics, enforcement of overstays becomes more automated, fewer visitors will risk travel sanctions and DHS will be better able to track the entry and exit of high-risk individuals.
The challenge of visa overstays is one of many faced by the network of agencies tasked with border security. Factors such as gaps in regulations, inconsistent handling of lost and stolen passports, a complex visa system, a controversial influx of refugees and asylum-seekers and the growing masses of people and goods entering the U.S. from around the globe all strain the government systems charged with protecting the U.S. Legitimate businesses, travelers and economic systems are negatively impacted by the resulting inefficiencies.
I hope that the recent intense (if often misplaced) focus on borders and immigration will push the next administration to take action on long-promised initiatives to deploy advanced identity capture and verification technology and data-based intelligence solutions across all points of entry, moving us forward and closer to where we need to be in the new economy.
Stephen Maloney is executive VP of business development and strategy for Acuant, the leading provider of intelligent data capture and authentication solutions.