Border Checkpoints Go High Tech
Science fiction is quickly becoming science fact
- By John Merlino
- Mar 01, 2015
Imagine this: You’re looking around the room and people are getting retinal
scans. Others are presenting RFID cards. Some are undergoing fingerprint
imaging. Did you accidentally walk onto the set of some futuristic blockbuster
movie? Guess again. You’re actually standing at a U.S. border checkpoint,
waiting to be processed.
It’s not unusual nowadays to find domestic and global entry points leveraging
technologies once considered to be science fiction. Prime examples are the U.S.
Customs GOES program (Global Online Enrollment System for U.S. Customs
and Border Protection Trusted Traveler Program) and its Canadian counterpart
NEXUS, which are applying a host of emerging technologies to pre-approve citizens
and expedite passage at ports of entry, including everything from photo IDs
with embedded RFID chips to iris scans and hand imaging.
Employing these new screening technologies allows United States and Canadian
border agencies to concentrate the bulk of their efforts on potentially higherrisk
travelers and goods, in order to secure the integrity of our borders. It’s a dual
authentication procedure that links passport documents with biometric data. Of
course agents still conduct random screening interviews, but the use of technology
brings a whole new level of efficiency to checkpoint processing.
The United States is currently discussing how to leverage advanced technology
to pre-screen travelers seeking admittance across its southern borders. Going
hand-in-hand with the discussion on immigration reform is the debate on how
to work with our southern neighbors to create a secure worker identification credential that can authenticate a person with biometric data such as hand, retinal or facial geometry.
While GOES and NEXUS are in their infancy, the
proliferation of these kinds of technologies holds tremendous
promise for helping border agencies more
tightly control legitimate traffic and block nefarious
passage. At “working” labs on the U.S. and Canadian
borders the efficacy of these programs are still being
tested. But as beta sites they can be great proving
grounds for the wider use of multiple authentication
credential programs at our borders. They, along with
other Trusted Traveler programs such as the airline
passenger screening program called “TSA-Pre” seem
to be gaining acceptance, clearly demonstrating that
the traveling public is willing to work with the security
agencies protecting our country.
Out of the Lab and Into the Field
Many of the advanced technologies border checkpoints
are using today have been niche solutions in
high security environments for decades. Crossover
for tools like fingerprint scanning and hand geometry
imaging was slow because initially these applications
required huge amounts of data to be stored locally.
But with advances in processing power, bandwidth capacity,
data compression and storage efficiencies, now
imaging databases can be cost-effectively archived in
remote server farms and accessed quickly over a secure
network for speedy validation.
Another development contributing to successful
crossover has been the introduction of higher-sensitivity
visual processors which enable biometric programs
to efficiently capture the images of a person’s
iris and retina in a single scan. With the addition of
software specially designed to manage metadata, border
agencies can now efficiently link any biometric
data with other information stored on travelers’ credentials
to help further expedite border processing.
While streamlining traffic flow is proving valuable
at border checkpoints, it doesn’t take much of a leap
of imagination to see that the technology might eventually
play a key role in other high throughput environments
such as airports, seaports and other Customs
verification check points.
Bringing Facial Recognition into Play
As facial recognition software continues to improve
in accuracy and reliability, it, too, will inevitably wind
its way into the border checkpoint toolkit. At some
point, it might even replace the current retinal/iris
scanning technologies used by GOES and NEXUS as
the preferred screening solution.
Like other imaging technologies, limitations in
processing power, bandwidth capacity, data compression
and storage efficiencies had been hampering
the widespread adoption of facial recognition software—
but no more. With far fewer constraints, many
facial recognition solutions are now able to integrate
multiple image sensors (cameras) with portals that
direct traffic flow. A subject’s image can be captured
multiple times, collated and digitally stored using an
algorithm matrix that analyzes specific facial features.
While the procedure requires high processor overhead
from multiple software and hardware platforms,
new open standards-based architecture, high-megapixel
network cameras and sophisticated analytics are
helping to accelerate the accuracy, reliability, usability
and timely retrieval of these enhanced images.
Augmenting the Human Factor
In the aftermath of 9/11, we’ve forever changed
our views on vigilance against internal and external
threats. Nowadays the average person has come to
expect closer scrutiny and screening in nearly all aspects
of their daily lives—from traffic cams and toll
booth recorders to TSA advanced imaging machines
at airports; omnipresent surveillance cameras in office
buildings, schools and shopping centers; and now
even wearable cameras on police officers.
Without technology to augment human screening,
law enforcement and security staff would be quickly
overwhelmed by the volume of tasks needing to be
Numerous studies conducted by the military and
private enterprises have repeatedly demonstrated the
inherent limitations on how well humans manage
multiple tasks simultaneously. Considering the complexities
of a border crossing—or the similar challenges
of airport screening—which often includes
country clearances, checking for contraband and
identifying individuals on a watch list—technology,
of necessity, becomes a critical force multiplier.
Technologies that can match an image with a known
watch list can greatly reduce human error. Knowing
that they have the support of these increasingly reliable
and sophisticated systems lowers security agents’
stress and enables them to function for longer periods
of time with increased situational awareness.
Acknowledging Possible Downsides
There are definitely measurable upsides to technologies
like worker and visitor credentials that make their
future use imminent. While the goal of these types of
systems is to allow greater “authorized” access, some
may argue that the resultant higher throughput at our
borders will present the opportunity for more unlawful
entry. The possibility certainly exists. But using
these credential systems to pre-screen travelers will
give agents more time to discern the subtle clues that
can only be detected through human interaction.
Deploying additional technologies such as facial
recognition against known watch lists also has a great
upside in helping to detect persons of interest. As
these solutions continue to mature the essential question
becomes: How can we get smarter, faster and better
at securing our borders?
What the Next Innovations Might Be
Due to a number of new developments in enhanced
image quality, advanced compression and rapid storage and retrieval of relevant video, IP
video has begun to outpace analog technology,
especially in high security environments.
Increased processing power
at the edge provides the opportunity
for manufacturers to embed greater intelligence
in the camera itself—such as
motion detection, tampering alarms,
cross-line detection and more—which
allows border agents to anticipate and
respond more quickly to threats.
Now viewed as smarter edge appliances,
network cameras remove much
of the legacy server overhead of the
past because the software is managed
directly on the device rather than from
the remote server. As processing power
continues to grow, this new system configuration
will ultimately pave the way
for facial recognition programs operating
in-camera that are capable of obtaining
a “target/suspect” and reporting
that to a security agent far removed
from the location.
But for these sophisticated analytic
programs, often created by third-party
developers, to succeed they need to follow
a few basic tenets:
- Use an open platform with a standards
based approach, such as ONVIF/
Open Network Video Interface
which allows them to work with
other open applications.
- Build on native applications that
provide integration capabilities
through APIs/Application programming
interfaces, or use a servicesbased
approach with a requisite
software development kit/SDK.
- Have the capability to leverage the
enhanced processing capabilities of
a robust processor within the device
- Conform to the inherent security
protocols of a mature and secure
operating system, a necessary prerequisite
to obtaining authorization
to operate on a Federal or DoD/
Balancing the Need for
Homeland Security against
It’s important to recognize that hightech
screening and surveillance come
at a cost. The ongoing great debate on
privacy versus ready access to information
is definitely heating up.
There is no doubt that the interests
of national security and the privacy of
our society will often be at odds. However,
polls seem to indicate that a growing
percentage of people are okay with
surrendering a bit of privacy if the end
result is a safer, more secure world.
This article originally appeared in the March 2015 issue of Security Today.