High-Level Threats

Our connected world needs confident security systems

Our world is connected through travel now more than ever before. Globalization has made way for a constant coming and going, making border security more necessary. With that can come many high-level threats such as transnational crime, human trafficking and terrorism.

Investing in biometric security is no longer a luxury for many international borders, it is now a necessity. The importance of knowing who is coming and going is key to an effective border security program. That is why, in the United States, we see Customs and Border Protection (CBP) photographing travelers entering the country.

Authenticating identity is one of the main components of border security. As technology advances, we have the ability to deploy technology that can quickly and accurately validate a person’s assertion of their identity. Implementing multi-layer authentication solutions makes security efforts more effective and dynamic. Biometric solutions play a crucial role as border security evolves to meet the demands of the 21st century.

Biometric technology allows for a higher standard of authentication, and we see multi-modalities being implemented by the Department of Homeland Security.

The Role of Biometrics in Border Security

One of the fascinating things about biometrics is that each biometric modality has its own unique advantages. It’s not just a technical evaluation based on accuracy that is the deciding factor, but it is also about where biometrics are to be used and the people who will use them. Put more scientifically, the suitability of any biometric solution depends on accuracy, environment, usability, invasiveness and culture, as well as cost, of course. The result is a unique profile like a biometric image itself.

“The need for an effective and robust security program is a necessity for many international borders. Marrying multiple tools and technologies together is an efficient way for border agents to strengthen their existing programs and ensure safe borders are maintained,” said Ella Schiralli, manager, Federal Government Markets with 3M. “Biometric technology is absolutely worth considering implementing as part of a short and long-term investment.”


ePassports are one of the important innovations in border security, becoming prominent in the early 2000s. Most countries are now issuing ePassports, a passport with an electronic, RFID chip that stores, at a minimum, the same data that is found in the physical data page of the passport. This includes a digital photo of the passport holder. This facial image stored in data group two of the ePassport is readily accessible to anybody who can open the chip using basic access control. For this, all that is needed is a key, which can be calculated from the machine readable zone (MRZ) of an ePassport.

Using these specific readers and facial recognition technology, CBP agents are quickly and easily able to match the individual in front of them with the valuable information on the eChip.

There are numerous security benefits to ePassports, like providing protection against identity theft, increasing the level of identity authentication of the traveler and making it harder to counterfeit passports. Additionally, these benefits reach further than just border control efforts. For example, commercial organizations who want to reduce fraud, banks, casinos, car rental companies, can all access the eChip on an ePassport and view an image of the face of the person to whom the document was issued, ensuring a higher level of identity authentication.

Facial Recognition

Like all biometric modalities, facial recognition has its own set of unique advantages. It is one that we humans learn to use from an early age and is indispensable in social interaction. Despite its ubiquitous use, perhaps surprisingly it is one of the biometric modalities that people find most intrusive. Unlike an image of fingerprints or iris, a person is recognized immediately by their face.

This technology, surprisingly, is not as costly as one may guess. In border security trials, it was found that even a simple commercial off-the-shelf webcam, combined with an ePassport reader, delivers excellent results. This is not to say that it works well in all environments. Good matching always depends on good images. Currently, facial recognition software cannot detect the contours of the face when the face is covered by a shadow. Additional lighting may help, but can be often avoided by carefully choosing where to locate the camera.

The varying height of the subject can also be a factor, since the facial image will be stretched somewhat if the pitch of the camera is too great. However, in use cases where there is an agent or officer operating the equipment, facial recognition is an invaluable tool that gives the agent additional objective data to help make their decision.

Facial recognition has come to play a large role in border security, and has evolved to account for human error. Once, image authenticity was left to the human eye. But how observant are humans at making this comparison? Scientific studies reveal that even a border officer struggles to achieve 80 percent accuracy. Facial recognition software, which pays less attention to hairstyles and good looks and more to the geometry of the facial features, achieves more than 90 percent accuracy, and with the resources being put into research and development, it is improving quickly.

How Facial Recognition Technology is Evolving

Speaking of research and development, there are a variety of advancements to note as facial recognition becomes more prominent. Old technology required still images to recognize faces, and many systems still use this technology. This method is tedious and timeconsuming. Looking for ways to improve, developers created technology to use video stream. The system relied on still images, however integrating a video component allowed systems to capture thousands of still images at once, leading to a more robust and accurate database.

Now, technology is advancing and using video stream as true video. This will make a world of difference for border control agents. Still images require compatible scenarios, like angles, lighting and expression, in order to make a match. This can make obtaining a match difficult. With an original photo being taken at one place at a time, the image taken to match is likely occurring in a different place, at a different time.

Another evolving component of facial recognition is the ability to recognize faces in an uncontrolled environment. Currently photos are taken in a controlled environment with a uniform setup, requiring specific lighting and angles. The images captured look like that of an ID card. Also, subjects are more likely to wear makeup and dress up when they are expecting to have their photo taken for something lasting like an ID card.

However, at a point of entry, the environment is not controlled. There is different lighting, different angles, and these differences can make a match more difficult. In the last few years, large improvements in facial matching algorithms have been made to address these issues. Facial recognition is being setup to better handle uncontrolled environments, like ports of entry, to better replicate and reflect actual situations and environments.

Combining true video with measures that account for uncontrolled environments improves speed and accuracy, making facial recognition more dynamic and powerful, and a key security component in border control.


While biometric technology evolves and solutions for iris and facial scanning become more accessible, there will always be space and need for fingerprinting. You don’t leave your face behind, you leave your fingerprints. Fingerprint databases are robust with known and suspected criminals and terrorists. Using fingerprint technology for border security, and combining it with additional biometric modalities, strengthens intelligence and offers higher levels of safety.

How Fingerprinting Technology is Evolving

Computer-powered fingerprint technology has been around since the early 1980s. Over the years, the technology has evolved and become more readily available. We see fingerprint technology integrated into the mainstream, and more widely accepted by the public, through mediums like mobile phones and ATMs. As the technology continues to evolve, the next step in fingerprinting will be touchless.

With an increased number of companies making touchless fingerprint readers, use of the technology is likely to become readily available when needing to identify large numbers of people, such as at an airport or cruise docking station. 3M is one of many companies who have supported the development of this technology, as these type of readers produce sharper images than when using a fingerprinting surface. In addition, this touchless technology offers exceptional speed and is a great germ-free alternative.


Authentication is the first step to a compelling border security program. Implementing biometric technology into border management increases authentication accuracy. It also assists CBP agents to make better decisions when it comes to homeland security.

“Countries like China, South Korea and India have already established the precedence of using biometric technology regularly when it comes to border management,” Schiralli said. “Because biometric technology is an efficient way to confirm a person’s identity and can greatly strengthen security measures, 3M Border Management Systems continue to make a profound impact worldwide.”

While biometrics are only one part of an overall security program, they have become an indispensable tool in combatting border issues. Marrying biometric modalities together allows CBP, and government agencies across the world, to create more efficient, effective and secure border control programs. Whether coming or going, expect biometrics to continue to advance and play a role in port of entry security procedures.

High-Level Threats

This article originally appeared in the March 2016 issue of Security Today.


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