Defense Media Network

Maritime Biometrics – Identification and Screening to Enhance National Security Identity

Although the term “biometrics” did not come into common use by law enforcement until the late 20th century A.D., Babylonian “police” used wet clay to record the fingerprints of those they arrested as early as the 18th century B.C., perhaps earlier. The first-known use of fingerprints as evidence in theft trials dates back to at least 300 A.D. in China.

While commonly used throughout Asia for thousands of years, fingerprints were “rediscovered” by Western law enforcement less than 200 years ago. Even that came after numerous papers and books were written on the subject by European physicians and scientists as far back as the 1600s.

In 1892, Argentine police chief Juan Vucetich set up the first fingerprint bureau, where both criminal fingerprints and latent prints taken from crime scenes were recorded and used for later comparisons. It was another 14 years before this early biometric was recognized in the United States, beginning with the New York City Police Department.

Coast Guard captures fingerprint biometric

Two crewmembers from a U.S. Coast Guard cutter capture a fingerprint biometric from an interdicted vessel. The Coast Guard furthers its missions of law enforcement and homeland security through the collection of biometric data. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Lt. Josh Brandt

Faster – and commonplace – computers spurred the development of new biometrics, including retinal or iris scanning, facial recognition software, voice “prints,” DNA – even the unique shape of individual human earlobes. Fingerprinting also has benefitted from new technology – not only in the speed and accuracy of shared records, but replacing ink on paper with digital scans and recording all 10 fingers rather than just two.

In its law enforcement mission, the U.S. Coast Guard is a relative newcomer to biometrics, primarily using two-digit fingerprinting to identify suspected alien smugglers, most recently taking that biometric to sea. Testing currently is under way on a 10-print system, which is fast becoming the international standard for law enforcement. In addition, the Biometric Integrated Product Team (IPT), led by the service’s Capability Directorate, is following the development of other biometrics in law enforcement and how they might speed the identification of suspects.

That is especially important for those being held aboard a Coast Guard cutter following an interdiction and boarding at sea. Verifying the identity of those interdicted is a major issue for Coast Guard personnel involved, as well as others taken from the seized vessel. But the often-harsh environment at sea complicates the use of any biometric system.

“There are a number of challenges. The current two-print system is a proof-of-concept that has been operationalized into a system of record to help develop requirements for future development and expansion,” noted Cmdr. Pat DiBari, deputy chief of the Office of C4 and Sensors Capability and Biometrics program manager.

The Coast Guard’s current hardware, software, and modalities being used are effective, DiBari said, but they could be improved. For example, expanding from two fingers per encounter to 10 would capture quite a bit more data requiring more communications bandwidth and autonomous information flow – all of which would have to be incorporated into the capability at sea – but that also would allow the service to access other databases within the law enforcement and defense community.

In November 2010, the Coast Guard held a biometrics exercise, bringing in operators from District 7 in Miami, Fla., and the departments of Defense, Justice, and Homeland Security (DHS), among others. The goal, involving a number of operational scenarios, was to evaluate capability gaps. The biggest gap is how information currently is transferred – by email, one encounter at a time.  “Having more autonomous data exchanges, integrated with our existing systems of record, would be ideal,” he said.

The service has started with upgrades to its cutters’ bandwidth to achieve the goal to transmit data and get a response in a more reasonable amount of time.

If the Coast Guard cutter has the bandwidth to send and receive biometric data directly to shore, the entire process can take less than 10 minutes. The goal is to eventually upgrade from the existing two-print technology to a 10-print, multimodal capability. The service also is working to install that capability on cutters serving with the Department of Defense (DoD) in Southwest Asia.

fingerprint capture on SEEK device

MST1 Ashley Kelley captures a fingerprint of a crewmember on a SEEK device during an LNG vessel boarding. This biometric data is used to verify the identity of crewmembers. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Lt. Josh Brandt

Increasing demands on Coast Guard law enforcement, homeland security, and defense missions highlight the need for new and more advanced technologies. But the Capability Directorate has identified a far more widespread requirement.

“What we’ve learned through our analysis is the need for identity certitude – using the best data available, based on a biometric characteristic and related intelligence, to identify an individual – is needed for nine out of the 11 Coast Guard missions. Today, less than 10 percent of Coast Guard forces, charged with protecting 95,000 miles of the maritime border, have this capability,” DiBari said.

The cutters on which a two-print system is being evaluated all operate in the waters off South Florida and in an area between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic known as the Mona Pass – one of the most heavily used sea lanes for smuggling narcotics and illegal immigrants.

However, according to Lt. Josh Brandt, the Coast Guard Biometrics Mission manager, the service also is conducting a 10-print pilot project for crew verification on liquefied natural gas (LNG) tankers arriving from Yemen at the two primary LNG ports in the United States – Boston and Port Arthur, Texas. Eventually, other data already being collected, but not used, will also be incorporated.

“We don’t use facial imaging for crew identity verification, but it is stored when we take fingerprints from someone who is interdicted, along with biographic information. This data is combined into a digital file that is emailed to the DHS central database – Automated Biometric Identification System [IDENT] – the largest biometric database in the country,” Brandt said. “It also includes visa applicants, border crossings – basically anything any DHS component collects.”

While the DHS central database contains INTERPOL and DoD database records, there is currently no linkage that would enable the Coast Guard to search all available DHS, DoD, and DoJ databases at one time. However, Brandt said, all agencies collecting biometric data are working closely to establish a good path for data-sharing at the federal level.

The Coast Guard is using asset forfeiture funds received from the Treasury Department for the upgrade to 10-fingerprint technology. Once that is completed, the service’s deployment plan calls for potentially expanding biometrics into the Gulf of Mexico and Southern California – the top priorities – and into some port security mission areas.

Homeland Security Presidential Directive 24, “Biometrics for Identification and Screening to Enhance National Security,” requires federal agencies to “use mutually compatible methods and procedures in the collection, storage, use, analysis, and sharing of biometric and associated biographic and contextual information of individuals in a lawful and appropriate manner, while respecting their information privacy and other legal rights under United States law.”

Collection of biometrics is dealt with on a case-by-case basis and in strict accordance with applicable laws. According to DiBari, if there is reasonable suspicion of criminal conduct, there could be justification to collect biometrics. Making such decisions emphasizes the other major components of using biometrics – training and an understanding of the context of other agencies’ databases.

Coast Guard Biometric Multiple Modality

This depiction provides the future operational view of how the Coast Guard, through interagency collaboration, will collect and verify identities while employing policy, protecting privacy, and leveraging national databases. U.S. Coast Guard diagram courtesy of Lt. j.g. Al Sowers

“A lot of people focus on the technology, but part of implementing a capability includes eventually embedding it in your regular training program. Those using it need to not only understand the technology, but also the policies involved, the legal requirements, the databases being searched, the context behind that data, etc., so they can put a picture together and ‘connect the dots’ on scene,” DiBari said. “And that requires comprehensive training, which is clearly a major part of making a system effective.”

Brandt is confident the Coast Guard will stay on top of new biometric technologies, especially how they are used by other government agencies, as well as knowing some will not be appropriate for use on ships at sea. Current facial recognition technology, for example, may not handle the rough environment of moving platforms at sea. Nor is it yet possible to use facial recognition at a distance, such as from a cutter to another boat.

For now, the Coast Guard sees its biometric needs as being very fundamental – but growing.

It’s hard to predict what’s next for the service. According to the Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2010, it requires DHS to evaluate emerging technologies for biometrics and evaluate more non-intrusive collection technology. In the maritime environment, DiBari concluded, that is particularly challenging, where there are environmental factors, such as sea spray and direct sunlight, that impact the quality of this technology.

“It also requires the department to stand up a maritime biometrics program of record. We’re looking at different options on how to do that; clearly, with our current budget environment, we need to look at implementing joint programs and shared standards and architectures with our partners – DHS, DoD, and Justice. We believe continued research will yield less intrusive and more efficient methods, which in turn will drive which modes we adopt.”

More than 900 prosecutions have been conducted using fingerprints collected by the Coast Guard since the biometric proof-of-concept system was implemented in 2006. In fiscal year 2011 alone, the system helped facilitate the prosecution of 85 individuals for human smuggling or illegal entry/re-entry into the U.S., and on six occasions helped verify citizenship of migrants interdicted at sea.  When a 10-print system is implemented more interdictions could be considered for prosecution, especially when combined with other emerging biometrics. The success of this proof of concept presents a compelling justification to expand use in other sections of the maritime border and will help the service take another step in DHS’ comprehensive strategy to secure the nation’s borders.

This article was first published in Coast Guard Outlook: 2012 Edition.


J.R. Wilson has been a full-time freelance writer, focusing primarily on aerospace, defense and high...