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DHS to Tap Silicon Valley for Doggie Fitbits, Facial Recognition Tech

U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents and K-9 security dogs keep watch at a checkpoint station, on Feb. 22, 2013, in Falfurrias, Texas.

U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents and K-9 security dogs keep watch at a checkpoint station, on Feb. 22, 2013, in Falfurrias, Texas. // Eric Gay/AP

Tomorrow, Menlo Park-area techies and investors will meet with Homeland Security Department personnel for an interactive lesson in U.S. Customs and Border Protection 101.

It’s the latest DHS effort to draw Silicon Valley brainpower and technology into a department that, like much of the federal government, is facing technical difficulties.  

"It is our way of introducing a component -- CBP -- to the community," said Melissa Ho, managing director of innovation programs in Homeland Security’s San Francisco Bay outpost. Department Secretary Jeh Johnson announced plans for a Silicon Valley field office in April 2015.

One nagging technological problem for more than a decade has been tracking down people with expired visas. The 9/11 Commission recommended the government deploy biometric entry-exit stations at borders as soon as possible; two of the September 2001 hijackers had overstayed their visas.  The need took on new urgency with the discovery that ISIS is creating fake document mills to help extremists tiptoe in and out of the United States through gaps in border security.

As Alan Bersin, DHS assistant secretary for international affairs, told lawmakers at a December House hearing -- border exits in the United States, like airports, were never designed to screen departures.  

Enter Silicon Valley.

"Our No. 1 mission is antiterrorism, but we also have that economic responsibility” to facilitate legitimate trade and transit, as well as protect privacy, Dan Tanciar, CBP program manager in the office of field operations, told Nextgov.  "What do we do in confined spaces? What does the equipment footprint look like?”

DHS has been experimenting with facial recognition to fulfill its biometric exit mandate, but needs more precise-matching techniques and more speed.

Candid Cruise Vacation Photos Offer an Idea

"If you realize that every passport, every visa has a photograph attached to it,” there are a lot of high-fidelity pictures available for identification purposes, Tanciar said. As of January 2015, DHS’s biometric database held 170 million foreigner facial images.

“The idea that we have is, one-to-many [matching], to make the process seamless to the traveler,” Tanciar said.

There is confidence that computer programming and hardware to reach facial-search nirvana is out there, in Silicon Valley or another U.S. tech corridor.

Examples of the possibilities include, Tanciar said, Aruba’s "Happy Flow," an airport screening approach that uses a traveler’s facial image as a common form of ID at each security check, from bag drop to immigration to boarding. At Universal Studios Japan, certain ticket-holders can breeze into the theme park by looking into a terminal screen at the gate for identity verification, he noted.

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Tanciar also pointed to the potential demonstrated by Disney Cruise ships that use facial recognition to identify passengers in candid professionally-shot photos so that vacationers can easily find and buy them.

At the Otay Mesa pedestrian crossing in San Diego, DHS has already test-launched systems that can connect people’s entry into the United States with their exit using facial and iris recognition.

Video analytics is another technology CBP has tangled with in the past. Last month, the agency announced it is ready to expand deployment of a series of sensor- and camera-equipped surveillance towers to monitor parts of the U.S.-Mexico boundary line. Homeland Security is tasked with continuously scanning thousands of miles of border territory. How do you quickly find objects that might present a threat in all that footage? 

"There's a lot of opportunity with facial recognition,” Tanciar said. “I think the world is our oyster as far as what functions it could serve” for law enforcement and air surveillance, within privacy limits.

Speaking of aviation, other items on the DHS wish list include small drones to patrol the borders. "Big data" analysis to help track more than 72,000 cargo containers a day would be handy, as would, “canine wearables,” said Ari Schuler, a director in the CBP IT office, who along with Ho, spoke to Nextgov by phone from Silicon Valley.

Canine Wearables

The 1,500 teams of canines supporting Border Patrol officers are trained to sniff out narcotics and cash, among other signs of illegal trafficking.

As previously reported, there is interest in doggie-cams or collars that can sense stress in a dog’s bark, which could indicate the animal has been threatened.

In addition, DHS would like to make sure the patrol’s best friend is in good physical shape. "We want to see if there are technologies that can monitor hydration, core temperature," Schuler said. 

Friday's "Homeland Security Day" likely will be followed by several calls for contract proposals in late May or early June, officials said.

"The goal here is really to have us present our problem set to not just startups, or security companies, but the whole tech community," Schuler said. DHS plans to take the show on road, with stops in Boston and other cities that have vibrant IT corridors. 

Contracts under the nationwide creative effort are issued through a new award structure, called the "innovation other transaction solicitation,” that allows the government to offer smaller sums, more quickly.

Last December, for instance, DHS held a Silicon Valley industry day comparable to a traditional D.C. vendor meeting where officials detailed a specific cybersecurity job.

A couple months later, on Feb. 22, DHS announced a $200,000 deal with Santa Clara-Calif.-based Pulzze Systems for "Internet of Things" security monitoring. The department needs a sharper lens into the increasingly interconnected networks, vehicles, and other everyday objects that support U.S. critical infrastructure.

Friday's meet-and-greet with West Coast techies is a chance to see existing tools that could lend themselves to border security and learn what technologies are in the research and development pipeline, Schuler said. Potentially, CBP could partner with a firm on R&D to test facial recognition algorithms.

"We realize that the innovation community is ready, willing and able to work with us," DHS spokesman John Verrico said from Washington. "There are some really good ideas that we're perhaps not tapping into." 

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