DHS delivers US-VISIT plan

Program’s director says an exit system will be in place by December 2008

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The Homeland Security Department faces increasing criticism for failing to develop an automated system for tracking foreign nationals exiting the country.

However, Robert Mocny, director of the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology program, said in an interview with Federal Computer Week that DHS now has a plan that should assuage lawmakers’ and others’ concerns.

DHS sent its plan to Congress earlier this month. It includes a schedule, financial and business strategies, and the bread-and-butter basics of a biometrics system for tracking visitors leaving the United States, Mocny said.

“We will have a biometric exit solution in place by December 2008,” he said.

Between now and then, DHS must publish interim rules and regulations and get comments from the airline industry.

Lawmakers, however, are not happy with the plan, and other experts, including airline industry officials, say DHS must consider alternatives to its current strategy. “We don’t consider what they sent us a plan,” said Dena Graziano, a spokeswoman for the House Homeland Security Committee.

Graziano said the committee is sending a letter to DHS outlining its concerns. At press time, that letter had not been completed.

Legislation authorizing the US-VISIT program requires all foreign nationals to undergo 10-fingerprint scans to verify their identity when they enter and leave the United States. The program is designed to let the government identify foreign nationals and track their movement into and out of the country.

Between 2004 and 2005, DHS set up biometric entry systems at 116 airports, 15 seaports and 154 land-based gates, but it has not yet established the required biometrics-based exit program.

DHS conducted an experimental exit program at 14 major U.S. airports during the past three years. However, DHS officials ended the test program for the exit system in May after encountering problems using 10-fingerprint scanning technology.

Mocny said biometric exit tests showed that the problems were not with the technology per se but with the available infrastructure. Seaports, for example, lack infrastructure needed to implement exit controls, he said.

Congress included a requirement for DHS to use biometrics in recent legislation it is considering to implement the recommendations of the 9-11 Commission. Lawmakers called for DHS to submit a plan to “accelerate the full implementation of an automated biometric entry and exit data system.”

“DHS needs to address infrastructure needs, particularly with border cities, but they need to balance [tracking who comes in and out] with tourism and trade,” said Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) at a July 17 press briefing. The Homeland Security Committee would continue to work with DHS to refine US-VISIT, he said.

Mocny sparred with airline industry representatives and lawmakers about who should record visitors’ biometric information when he testified during a June 28 hearing of the Homeland Security Committee’s Border, Maritime and Global Counterterrorism Subcommittee. DHS’ current plan for US-VISIT requires the airlines to verify travelers’ biometric information during the check-in process at airports. But that plan is unpopular with the airline industry and some lawmakers.

Rep. Al Green (D-Texas) said verifying biometric identity at check-in could create security problems. “I’m really appealing to you to consider the best point of detection” for the exiting process, he said, adding that it would be a mistake to let people check in, receive a boarding pass and roam freely in areas where they could give their boarding passes to others.

Mocny said a secondary biometric check could be performed to verify identity, but Green dismissed that idea. “Perform the best check at the point that the person is boarding the plane,” Green said.

However, Mocny wasn’t in a mood to negotiate. “We believe the check-in process is the best, [so] this is how it’s going to be.”

Mocny said the airlines will receive 148 DHS-tested, fingerprint-reading kiosks to use for training before they take on their new role in implementing US-VISIT. He said the airlines need to “know their role and what they need to do.” Noting that airlines now handle a government form, I-94, which foreign visitors fill out when entering the country, Mocny said collecting biometric exit information would be a similar function.

Airlines “have always done inherently governmental jobs,” Mocny said. “This is kind of a modernized version of what they’ve been doing.”

The airline industry doesn’t want that responsibility, however, and wants to shift it to government agents. David Castelveter, vice president of communications at the Air Transport Association, said using kiosks to register foreign travelers at check-in makes no sense because many travelers now use online ticketing procedures.

“The airlines are using technology to drive people away from counters,” he said. “Why get people to use kiosks, which in five years are going to be dinosaurs?”

Castelveter said responsibility for maintaining and providing support for fingerprint-scanning technology shouldn’t fall on the airline industry, which would incur training costs and other resource demands. “What happens when [foreign visitors] get up to that biometric reader and they don’t understand the instructions?” he asked. “Who is going to be there to help them?”

Castelveter said the best way to collect biometric information at airports would be to have Transportation Security Administration officials collect it as part of their security screening procedures.

He also faulted DHS for not consulting fully with the airline industry before deciding how it would implement biometric verification.

“DHS put out its plan to have the collection process done at the ticket counter without full consultation of the airlines,” Castelveter said.

“We’re willing to sit down and talk with DHS about the best way to get it done,” he added, “but we don’t think their decision to mandate to do it at the ticket counter” was a good one.

Mocny said DHS needed to expand its consultations with the airline industry, and he promised that DHS would meet with industry representatives again soon.

Besides responding to airline industry critics, DHS must also answer to congressional auditors concerned about paying for the US-VISIT program.

Randolph Hite, the Government Accountability Office’s director of architecture and systems issues, said use of the US-VISIT program’s funding is unclear. Hite testified that DHS apportioned $27 million in fiscal 2007 for biometric exit programs that were too broadly defined.

“It’s difficult to hold the department accountable because it’s never been clear…what [US-VISIT] is going to be when it grows up,” Hite said.

GAO’s auditors said DHS plans to spend only $7.3 million on US-VISIT exit functions in fiscal 2007. The department didn’t request any new money for the program in fiscal 2008.
Still no headway with land-based biometricsThe Homeland Security Department will not use biometrics at land-border crossings any time soon because current technology is too slow to handle the long lines of people whose identities would need to be checked, said Robert Mocny, U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology program director.

Mocny said he hopes for a change in policy that will let DHS use an alternative to biometric technology or that industry would develop faster techniques for reading biometric data.

DHS experimented with vehicle-based radio frequency identification chips to learn whether it could create an exit program for US-VISIT based on the technology used at EZ Pass toll collection points. When cars crossed a border, over-the-road RFID readers would verify driver identities.

However, the experiment revealed that DHS couldn’t transmit biometric data securely via RFID signals, and people could easily transfer the RFID tags to other drivers. DHS ended the experiment in May.

US-VISIT officials have testified that using a 10-fingerprint scan to check people’s identity at land-border crossings also would be difficult to manage because non-Americans would handle Americans’ biometric information.

For example, Mexican border workers would be required to collect biometric data as Americans re-enter the country.

DHS has some time to deal with the quandary. Congress has set no deadline for implementing biometric scanning of visitors leaving the United States by land. Mocny said lawmakers are interested now in how well the air and sea portions of US-VISIT are working.

— Wade-Hahn Chan

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