DHS still pondering biometric air exit system

Department yet to decide on US-VISIT air exit system

The Homeland Security Department is still undecided about a program that would electronically collect fingerprints from visitors from other countries when they leave the United States by aircraft, a senior DHS official said today.

Robert Mocny, who heads the department’s U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology program, said in an interview that the department is still weighing an exit portion of the biometric security program. US-VISIT already collects fingerprints from non-U.S. visitors when they arrive in the United States.

Mocny said tests his office has done for the exit program have shown that an air exit portion of US-VISIT is feasible technologically and procedurally. However, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano must weigh costs and other considerations in making a decision on pursuing the program that could have an overall cost to government and industry of between $3 billion and $9 billion over 10 years, he said.

“There’s a dollar figure that goes from the least expensive to the most expensive and that’s what [Napolitano] is weighing,” he said. Mocny said if the program is put in place in a way that cuts down the number of kiosks needed, the overall cost could dip below $3 billion.

In 2004, the commission that investigated the 2001 terrorist attacks recommended using a biometrics-based system. However, progress on the biometrics-based exit system has been slow. In 2007, Congress gave DHS  a deadline of June 30, 2009, to put in place the biometrics-based exit system. DHS missed that requirement, and as a result lost authority to add some countries to government’s Visa Waiver Program.

Related stories:

DHS undecided about exit portion of US-VISIT program

Lawmakers press for automated exit system

Exit system for foreign travelers stands at a crossroads

Mocny said the department needs to decide whether limited resources are best spent on exit or on another program. “With that being said there is the dimension of the law, the Congress [has said] do this,” he added.

Advocates of such a system say it would boost immigration controls and could bolster counterterrorism efforts, while critics question whether the benefits are worth the cost.

The George W. Bush administration proposed requiring commercial air carriers to collect exit information at airports, but the plan stalled after it met resistance from the airline industry and some foreign governments. Although the proposal to have airlines collect the data hasn’t been formally scrapped, DHS under the Obama administration may be heading in a different direction.

In response to a request from lawmakers, in 2009 the US-VISIT office tested scenarios under which the Transportation Security Administration and Customs and Border Protection agency collected fingerprints from non-citizens departing from U.S. airports.

Mocny said those tests showed that the government could collect the biometrics without disruptions to processes at the airports. He said earlier tests showed the collection was technologically feasible. Mocny said DHS now has enough information on how the program would work in different situations.

About the Author

Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.


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