Biometrics enter DHS exit system

Agency is developing regulations for how US-VISIT will take on next phase

The Homeland Security Department, under pressure from lawmakers, will proceed immediately with a plan to use biometric screening procedures at airports to verify the identities of foreign visitors leaving the United States.

After telling Congress in March that a biometric exit program was not feasible, DHS announced May 7 that it would require foreigners exiting the country from airports to verify their identities via 10-fingerprint scans. DHS will work with commercial air carriers to establish the program.

DHS’ U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology program, which manages entry and exit security, has conducted an experimental biometric exit program at 14 major airports during the past three years.

DHS announced it discontinued a pilot exit program based on radio frequency identification technology. Effective May 6, DHS stopped requiring foreign nationals to use RFID-equipped US-VISIT kiosks to check out as they leave the country. Some described those kiosks as difficult to use, and RFID tags used in the exit program proved to be unreliable.

DHS officials said they would release new regulations in the coming months with details about how US-VISIT’s biometric exit system will work.

Airport users usually have a window of two hours before they leave on their flights, said Anna Hinken, a DHS spokeswoman. “The visitors could just go up and check out whenever they wanted.”

Lawmakers expressed relief at the decision to move the biometric exit program forward, but they warned DHS to avoid further delays.

“We hope the department will quickly incorporate lessons learned and implement a workable biometric exit capability at our airports,” said Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), chairman of the Homeland Security Committee. “Our national security cannot afford another visit to the drawing board.” 

Congress has been waiting since 2005 for DHS to submit its plans for a secure, biometrics-based exit strategy for the US-VISIT program.

DHS officials said biometric security is easier to implement at airports than at land border crossings. DHS has tried to find ways to avoid long lines. It concluded that delays would be unavoidable if it required all foreign visitors to submit to a fingerprint scan at land border crossings.

“If we were to be required to stop every single person when they leave to determine who is a citizen and who’s not a citizen, who gives their biometric and who doesn’t give their biometric, we would have extremely long lines,” said DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff, testifying in February before the House Homeland Security Committee.

US-VISIT officials had hoped they could avoid along lines at land border crossings by using readers that would scan visitors’ RFID tags. However, the readers were not sufficiently accurate, officials said.

DHS’ decision to implement a biometric exit program came less than a month after DHS submitted its fiscal 2007 expenditure plan to Congress. That plan states that DHS will implement the program by late 2008 or early 2009.
Can a biometric exit program work?Homeland Security Department officials told Government Accountability Office auditors in March that biometric capabilities are not yet ready for use in a program to screen foreign visitors when they leave the United States.

DHS gave three main reasons for its assessment:
  • The only proven technology available for biometric verification at land exits would require duplicating the processes in use at points of entry, creating costly staffing and infrastructure requirements and causing harmful trade, commerce and environmental consequences.
  • An experimental program using radio frequency identification technology did not produce a viable solution for securing land borders.
  • In the past three years, DHS spent more than $160 million, including $33.6 million in fiscal 2006, to test and evaluate a biometric exit system at two sea and five land points of entry and 14 airports, but none worked well enough to satisfy DHS officials.
— Jason Miller

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