While the recent budget deal may provide some relief for agencies charged with transportation domain security, this year the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) will face infinite national security challenges with a finite amount of funding.  The DHS should be applauded for adopting prioritized “risk-based” strategies to deter national security threats.  It should strongly consider greater use of proven technologies to enhance this approach going forward to bolster port security.      

In 2014, the U.S. will take steps towards implementing a biometric EXIT program to complement the existing U.S. VISIT program (now known as IDENT), which captures biometric data of foreign travelers entering the country. The IDENT program requires visitors from non-visa waiver countries to provide their biometric data upon entering the United States. Unfortunately no comprehensive program exists to track the departure of these same individuals. This presents a national security risk as DHS is currently unable to accurately determine whether a visitor, fugitive or terrorist has departed the U.S.

Analysts estimate that “visa overstays” account for as much as 40 percent of the undocumented or illegal immigrant population in the U.S. By implementing a holistic ENTRY and EXIT biometric program, the DHS, could verify the travelers through the IDENT program who have entered or exited the U.S.  A synchronized ENTRY and EXIT biometrics program will enable DHS and law enforcement agencies to deter, detect and disrupt potential acts of terrorism, arrest fugitives, and prevent the abduction and exploitation of children.

The U.S. will likely have to use a phased-in approach to implement EXIT.  A program using biometric-equipped entry and departure kiosks, secondary screening stations, and mobile DHS biometrics device teams in the nation’s busiest airports and seaports is a feasible starting point. To ensure that the program is comprehensive, DHS should consider fielding small, light-weight biometric devices that can rapidly and reliably capture and match records against all the authoritative databases.  These mobile systems have been utilized by the FBI and DOD and throughout the world by Special Operations forces with proven success. 

Customs and Border Protection (CBP) reportedly inspect only six percent of the 9 million containers that enter the United States each year.  This too presents a national security risk and creates a significant security gap in tracking the movement of terrorists.  Right now, advanced canine screening technologies are being utilized in Europe and Africa to collect air samples on filters that are specifically designed to capture scent vapor from portable or vehicle mounted cargo containers.  Specially developed to facilitate screening for mass cargo, these technologies have no limitation as to size or content.  Working through elaborated airflow and filtering systems, these systems have proven efficiencies in terms of process, performance, and cost effectiveness for the markets where it may be employed.  France and the UK have screened more than 100,000 trucks and pallets, and over 1.5 million metric tons of air cargo since live operations began. 

Additionally, the United States Department of Defense has developed a highly effective explosive device detection capability using canines.  Through a keen selection process and high level of training these canines have been found to work very effectively for up to 12 or 14 hours a shift in the most austere operational environments in the world.  Moreover, the military has recently honed its ability to use dogs off-leash to detect IEDs.  These canine systems have saved the lives of American warfighters in combat and have dramatically and aided in the disruption of IEDs in theater.  There is a clear use case for greater utilization of off-leash canines by DHS for port security.    

Lastly, DHS has made great strides in furthering their risk-based approach using cutting-edge analytics and predictive tools.  These capabilities effectively transform seemingly infinite streams of data into finite actionable information allowing for threats to properly prioritized based upon risk level.  Port Security authorities should consider wider use of these tools to direct the application of capabilities such as advanced canines and mobile biometrics to where they are needed most. 

In the past, the federal government has attempted to implement broad, overarching projects that call for extensive research and development and significant programmatic bandwidth to implement.  While federally funded research and development, and a coherent, comprehensive overall strategy is important, the current threat profile our ports are facing demand the rapid deployment of battle-proven capabilities.  By facilitating the lessons learned from our military and current efforts by allies overseas, we can achieve both short-term security success while delivering long-term, security benefits at our nation’s ports.