DHS looking to biometrics, more shared info on VWP

Shutterstock image: passport and visa.

The White House and the Department of Homeland Security are seeking to fill data gaps in the government's Visa Waiver Program in the wake of the Paris attacks by members of the Islamic State group.

The program has become a hot topic on Capitol Hill in the past few weeks because of fears that former Islamic State fighters with European passports could enter the U.S. under the system, which allows visa-free travel to passport holders from more than 30 participating countries, including most of Europe. Congress is weighing several pieces of legislation aimed at filling gaps in the program.

White House directives released Nov. 30 are designed to tighten the program and include having DHS take immediate steps to modify the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA), which captures information from program participants about past travel.

The White House also asked that DHS consult with the State Department and other agencies and submit a report in two months on its review process for partner countries in the program. The report should also examine pilot programs to assess how biometric identification tools could be incorporated into the process and should identify countries that are not complying with ESTA data requirements.

Furthermore, the Obama administration wants to enhance information sharing with Interpol to improve the country's ability to identify foreign fighters who might have traveled to conflict zones to train or fight with terrorist organizations by maximizing Interpol's ability to track lost and stolen travel documents and prevent them from being fraudulently used for travel.

A DHS official told FCW on background that the agency is looking to Congress for practical help in a number of areas, primarily in expanding its pre-clearance capabilities to airports overseas and allowing it to deploy Customs and Border Protection officers at foreign airports that have direct flights to the U.S.

A DHS spokesman told FCW that the agency has been assessing the Visa Waiver Program for the past couple of years and started making changes to ESTA in 2014. He also said DHS made a series of other data improvements in August.

The official echoed DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson's statement about wanting to work with Congress on the issue and added that the agency supports congressional measures based on the "practical security value" they would bring to the program.

Although a House bill designed to extend the restrictions on admitting Syrian refugees into the U.S. drew objections from the administration and opposition from some Democrats, efforts to enhance the security of the Visa Waiver Program are proceeding on a bipartisan basis.

Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) introduced the Visa Waiver Program Security Enhancement Act on Dec. 1. It would require travelers using the program to submit fingerprints and photos and use an electronic passport, among other improvements.

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a senior staff writer at FCW, whose beat focuses on acquisition, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Energy.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.


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