Today President Trump signed several Executive Orders on immigration, including one which moves toward the “extreme vetting” of refugees which he promised during the campaign. Now that political rhetoric is being transformed into operational reality, what do those of us in the biometrics industry expect? What does “extreme” vetting really mean?
The value of vetting (whether through biometrics or any other means) is derived from the quality of records available to match against. If there’s a robust database full of applicable and relevant information, then biometric screening will result in quick, accurate, meaningful results. If the database has few records, or if the available records are irrelevant to the task at hand, then by its very nature the vetting process will turn up fewer actionable results.
Since 9/11, the U.S. government has come a long way in improving the quality and interoperability of its biometric databases. Information silos and interagency turf wars once allowed known criminals and terrorists to slip through our defenses. Not anymore. Today, information sharing is the default mode. While the technical “ownership” of records still lies with different agencies, the operational connections between those databases has created a de facto single national system of records. The depth and breadth of those holdings is immense, and growing ever faster.
As the number of records in agency databases grew, so did the imperative to use those records effectively. The official criteria for watchlisting is highly nuanced – the result of years of fine-tuning, trial and error, policy adjustments, and even some legal cases won and lost. Every time someone slips through the cracks, the criteria are adjusted. Steady improvement in the quality, efficiency and match rates for biometrics also gave operators the tools they need to perform vetting on the fly.
All of this to say that the system of vetting which has evolved over the last sixteen-odd years is incredibly sophisticated, with layers upon redundant layers designed to strike a hard-won balance between civil liberties, technological realities and evolving threats. The complex flow chart of refugee processing (created by the U.S. State Department) shows just how tough current vetting really is.
So how will “extreme vetting” be any different? Will the government require new tools from the identity management industry to operationalize these new policies?
At a basic level, these new orders are about how biometric and other records are processed – the policies do little to increase the quality or amount of data available to match against. For the biometrics industry, enhancing or fundamentally altering the algorithm on immigration is desirable to stay a step ahead, but will have little impact on our market. On the other hand, adding to available databases, or increasing the quality of their holdings, would make a difference. Perhaps this concept will be addressed in future orders.