US-VISIT readies exit pilots

For Homeland Security Department officials, the entry work of the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology program has been the easy part of the project. The next step could be more laborious.

DHS officials expanded pilot programs last week for US-VISIT's exit portion, which they will largely build from scratch.

US-VISIT is designed to monitor travelers as they enter and exit the United States. The program has largely focused on the process of registering visitors as they enter the country.

Tracking exiting visitors, however, poses new challenges, including the creation of an

infrastructure.

"We are in unknown territory," said Scott Hastings, chief information officer for US-VISIT.

DHS officials announced that the exit pilot program, using automated biometric exit procedures for foreign visitors, will expand beyond the two test locations at the Baltimore-Washington International Airport and Miami's International Cruise Line Terminal. Later this month, DHS officials will add Chicago's O'Hare International Airport. Eleven additional airports and another seaport will start testing the technology next month.

Using technology and biometrics such as digital fingerprints and photographs, US-VISIT should accelerate the process of matching visitors' identities to their travel documents. Officials' goal for the test program is to determine a flexible exit system that matches the efforts of other DHS agencies, port authorities and the travel industry.

"We must implement a straightforward exit process to ensure that individuals adhere to the terms of their admission," said Asa Hutchinson, DHS' undersecretary for border and transportation security.

"The largest difference is from a business standpoint," Hastings said. "We have absolutely no process, no inspection process whatsoever for people who leave, other than the [Transportation Security Administration] screeners, so the largest difference is that there is no infrastructure from a facility standpoint and from an officers standpoint."

Comparisons between the entry and exit pilots are difficult because the two phases represent unconnected business processes, he said.

"From our perspective, exit is much more challenging," said Carter Morris, vice president of transportation security policy at the American Association of Airport Executives.

He said the challenges include a lack of infrastructure, different airport layouts and varying flows of international passengers. International passengers often arrive from connecting flights, whether those are regional, standard domestic or other international flights, he said. "There are a lot of combinations of these scenarios, and that will be interesting."

Although Accenture, which won the $10 billion US-VISIT contract in June, is not involved in the exit pilot, Hastings said the company will likely take over the implementation of a solution after officials test the various options. The pilot program's workstation integrator is Unisys Corp., and L-3 Communications will supply the attendants, said US-VISIT spokeswoman Anna Hinken.

L-3's three-year, $1 million task order was for 859 employees — some of whom are multilingual — to help travelers, scan visas, install software upgrades and export data stored in the workstations to DHS networks, said the company's spokeswoman Martha Newman.

To match visitors to their travel documents, visitors will check out at either an automated kiosk or with an exit attendant at the departure gate.

"We may not finally employ any of these" test options, Hastings said, adding that officials will evaluate cost, compliance, facilitation and the effects on the traveling public. "Facilitation is key," he added.

"They're taking a thoughtful approach, which we've encouraged," Morris said.

When DHS officials launched the first phase of US-VISIT in January, they used biometric entry capabilities at 115 airports and 14 seaports and began testing the biometric departure confirmation system. Department officials plan to test solutions next summer to monitor visitors on land borders.

Monitoring visitors at land borders presents an even more cumbersome challenge: the fact that there's no advance information on who's crossing the border.

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Testing the options

In the coming months, visitors to the United States will face two possible exit procedures as they leave the country, depending on where they visited.

Under one approach, departing visitors will check out of the country at exit kiosks located within airport or seaport terminals. Similar to entry procedures, visitors' travel documents will be examined, their index fingers digitally scanned and their photographs taken digitally. The information will be checked against a watchlist, and then visitors will receive a printed receipt that verifies that they have checked out.

Another method is a biometric checkout process with an exit attendant stationed at departure gates, where they will check documents. Attendants may also have handheld devices that scan documents and gather biometrics.

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