The use of biometric based systems for fighting crime as well as identifying known and suspected terrorists are on the rise. Over the years, these systems have proven themselves to be the most accurate and reliable tools for verifying the claimed identity of individuals. Terrorism is a major threat that plagues the civilized world and government agencies are constantly looking for robust security solutions to combat the threat posed by these criminals.
One of the biggest terrorist attacks that shook the world and led the U.S. government to examine the effectiveness of its security programs was the September 11 attack. This devastating and traumatic attack led the government to examine the “what-ifs” and the preventive measures that could have been implemented to stop this disaster.
Furthermore, 7 out of the 19 September 11 attackers were known to the government authorities and had in fact used false identity documents to gain entry to the United States. This revelation highlights the absence of a reliable identity mechanism and this is where biometrics can play a pivotal role in countering terrorist attacks and help to make the world a safer place.
Why do previous mechanisms fail to provide effective security?
A document passport was commonly used to verify passengers travelling through domestic and international borders. But such a document can be tampered and stolen as well as a false identity document could be used to cross borders. There is no reliable way to verify that the person in possession of the identity document is actually the authorized individual and not an impostor.
It is a daunting task for airport personnel to verify the identity of large number of travelers passing through national and international borders each day. Manual verification is prone to errors and also hinders the smooth flow of traffic at airports as it is time consuming. For a very long time, this was the way to verify the identity of travelers but proved ineffective in stopping terrorists from entering the country.
The use of biometrics for identification will help to produce tangible gains for state security, U.S. immigration and also in the broader context of combating international terrorism.
How do biometric based identification systems work?
Biometric identification relies on utilizing an individual’s physical or personal characteristics to verify the claimed identity of that individual. Some examples of biometric traits that have been successfully used for verification include fingerprints, voice, face, retina scan etc.
The working of these systems involve capturing a biometric sample such as fingerprint of the individual, converting it into a digital form and then comparing it against a computerized database of stored templates. Biometric systems are therefore able to provide automatic and almost instantaneous identity verification for individuals.
What biometric measures are being implemented to counter terrorism?
We will discuss three critical areas where the deployment of biometrics can impede terrorism.
A country’s port of entry like airports have certain sensitive areas that need to be secured so that only authorized personnel can access them. Badges and tokens such as keys or pass cards are usually used to identify the authorized personnel and regulate access to these areas. These keys or card based systems assumes that the person in possession of the pass card or badge is the individual who should be granted access.
However, in reality cards and tokens can be easily stolen, misplaced or forged. This system has no way of knowing that the person in possession of the card is actually the authorized personnel. PINs or password based systems are also vulnerable to breaches and pose a significant challenge in remembering them. Individuals may note down their passwords that can be stolen or misplaced. Such systems therefore can easily be compromised.
The security of sensitive facilities can be greatly enhanced by employing biometric identifiers. Iris recognition for example can be used to grant access to personnel. Iris is one of the most accurate biometrics and remains permanent throughout a person’s life. A biometric scanner captures the individual’s iris from a foot away within a matter of seconds. A successful match will confirm that the person wanting to access the particular area is in fact authorised to do so.
Passports, visas and boarding passes are the documents used by individuals for travelling and gaining entry to a particular country. Like badges and cards, these documents too can be forged, stolen or misplaced. This risk can be overcome by placing a biometric template on the individual’s travel document.
Many countries have introduced electronic passports that make it extremely difficult for unscrupulous individuals to adopt a false identity or create fake travel documents. The person’s encrypted biometric is inserted into the chip or magnetic strip on the travel document. This is usually done through a digital signature process by a trusted agent such as the U.S. Embassy’s visa department.
There should be a system in place to identify known or suspected terrorists automatically and immediately when they attempt to enter the United States. The deployment of biometric facial recognition systems will help to thwart future terrorist attacks as well as minimize inconvenience and invasiveness for the normal traveler.
Any person (including a terrorist) coming to the United States from overseas must pass through an immigration checkpoint at the port of entry. Implementing a facial recognition system at this point would require individuals to pose for a photograph under controlled conditions. The system then processes the photograph and runs it against a watch list database of suspected terrorists. An indication of a positive match by the system will be subjected to visual inspection by the authorities and the person will then be taken to a secondary interview for heightened scrutiny.
Thus the implementation of biometric facial recognition systems not only safeguards the country’s borders from terror threats but at the same time allows the average traveler to pass smoothly through airport check points. It helps law enforcement officials to unobtrusively single out wanted criminals without detaining or causing inconvenience to innocent travelers.