This week it was reported that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is planning to spend “billions” on a long-awaited biometric exit system. Mark Borkowski, Assistant Commissioner of the Customs and Border Protection’s Office of Technology Innovation and Acquisition, was quoted at an industry day event:
“Congress wants us to spend a billion dollars over the next few years on biometrics. We are in the process of designing the program to figure out what to ask for, so you will be seeing an attempt through things like RFIs and other mechanisms to ask you what you have available”
The Mandate for Biometric Exit
Procurement numbers in the billions tend to have ripple effects in Congress and beyond. While the legal mandate for biometric exit has been on the books since 1996, many members of Congress are wary of the potential costs of such a system. In 2009, DHS first attempted to put solid numbers behind an exit system – an effort which was heavily criticized as inaccurate and misleading. Even so, the use of “billions” in these estimates had the political effect of sidelining biometric exit for nearly a decade.
So what are we to make of the latest claims that DHS is once again preparing to spend “billions” on biometric exit?
Where the Billions Will Likely Be Spent
While the top-line number may be accurate to a point, what these “billions” will actually be spent on is far from clear. Building, implementing and maintaining a biometric exit system involves a rather complicated calculation of costs, some of which are apparent and others which are quite ambiguous.
IDENT is the primary fingerprint repository for all DHS components and will play a key role in the success of any biometric exit program. IDENT is currently in the process of being replaced with a new system (Homeland Advanced Recognition Technology – HART). This is a major, multi-year program in which DHS is planning to spend over $50 million in this fiscal year alone. Is the IDENT refresh a part of the biometric exit “billions”?
Another major question is the technology which DHS will actually use to implement biometric exit in the field. Despite a series of exhaustive technical surveys over the course of the last two years, DHS has yet to announce a concept of operations for biometric exit (let alone agree on one internally). Given the significant differences in the cost of different biometric technologies, how can DHS project the cost of an exit program if it doesn’t even know what it’s going to buy?
Personnel costs are usually projected to be the most significant cost of any exit program. While DHS has continually stated that it will seek to minimize the staffing requirements of biometric exit, any new system will naturally require people to run it. Given the lack of a concept of operations, however, no one can speak to the actual personnel costs of an exit system.
Consider two possibilities which have been circulated by DHS in the past:
- Using handheld devices to capture biometrics as travelers go down the jetway would mean essentially doubling CBP’s workforce – an officer would have to process each exit in person.
- Using kiosks or e-gates, on the other hand, would require a much smaller support staff. At the same time, such a solution might not have the desired policy effect.
In either case, it is unclear whether the “billions” account for these wildly different estimates of personnel cost.
Timelines are another significant factor in calculating the cost of biometric exit. Creating a new collection and matching system will require some significant up-front investments, followed by the ongoing costs associated with running and maintaining the program. How long does the “billions” figure cover? Does it only deal with the up-front costs, or is it an amalgamation of what DHS has already spent to prepare for exit, will spend to create exit, and will continue to spend as it maintains the program?
In biometric exit as in so much else, the devil is in the details. Throwing around high cost figures for a major government program casts vague doubts on the viability of biometric exit without actually revealing the reasons which may underpin those doubts. In order to have a substantive debate on the cost of biometric exit, industry and the public deserve a more detailed and precise accounting of what DHS actually means by “billions.”
Read more about the industry stance on biometric exit here.