President Trump's Travel Ban Order Could Expedite Biometric Scanning at Airports

The executive order that prohibits travelers from certain countries entering the United States also includes a provision that requires biometric checks for travelers leaving the country.

Amid the confusion and outcry over Trump's executive order on immigration and refugees, a brief section about biometric identification mostly got overlooked.

Section 7 in the document calls for the "expedited completion of the biometric entry-exit tracking system" recommended by the 9/11 Commission for travelers to the country. This applies to non-citizens and travelers from countries that don't have a bilateral agreement with the United States.

Currently, when travelers entering the country who aren't U.S. citizens or from countries in the Visa Waiver program pass through immigration, they have their fingerprints scanned. Capturing fingerprint scans at U.S. borders started after 9/11 and first used machines that scanned two fingers, but now uses readers that scan all ten.

The process exists only for entry, however.

"The U.S. is perhaps the only country I'm aware of where there is no immigration at the exit," Anil Jain, a biometrics expert and university distinguished professor in Michigan State University's Department of Computer Science, told Seeker. Jain immigrated to the U.S. from Lucknow, India, in 1969. He's been working in biometrics recognition for 25 years, and on pattern recognition and computer vision for 45 years.

The entry-exit system referenced in the executive order isn't new, Jain said. We have the tech, he said, but we don't have the process for handling travelers on their way out of the country. That means there's no consistent check to compare arrival with departure. Implementing such a check presents logistical challenges, though. Cost is a big one, Jain told Seeker, since international airports will need new separate areas to perform exit scans. The whole infrastructure has to change.

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If biometric scanning freaks you out on principle, that's understandable. At the same time, consider how accepted the tech has become for consumer electronics. "We are providing fingerprints to unlock our mobile phones," Jain pointed out. "We are using fingerprints for mobile payment."

Marios Savvides, an electrical and computer engineering research professor at Carnegie Mellon University and director of the CyLab Biometrics Center, said that Hollywood has done a good job stigmatizing biometrics.

"Biometrics is just making computers smarter so they can understand who they're interacting with," he said. "It ensures that someone isn't trying to evade the system you have in place."

Savvides, who came here from Greece 18 years, focuses on developing algorithms to making biometric scanning a more pleasant experience. The CyLab has an early prototype for an iris scanning system that can work from nearly 40 feet away.

Despite our country's advanced technologies, both Savvides and Jain emphasized the United States is very much behind the time when it comes to biometric scanning at the borders, compared with other countries. The UAE, for example, uses iris scanning, Savvides said.

"The use of biometrics is inevitable," Jain said. And its adoption comes down to trust. "Your hope is that that data will not be shared with anybody else, that it will not be used for any purpose other than for which it was collected."