DHS ponders wireless tech

Homeland Security Department officials are now looking at wireless devices as a way to track visitors leaving the country.

With the entry phase of a visitor tracking system in place at air- and seaports, Homeland Security Department officials are now considering handheld wireless devices for tracking visitors leaving the United States.

Currently, self-service kiosks are being tested as exit solutions for the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology (US-VISIT), but officials face the problem of visitors knowing they need to check out before they board a flight, said Shonnie Lyons, Increment One manager at DHS. The kiosks are being tested at Baltimore/Washington International Airport and the Port of Miami.

Having inspectors or contractors scan documents at the gate using a wireless device might solve that problem, Lyons said. The exit pilot programs will run through the year and the chosen technology is expected to be deployed in early 2005, Lyons said.

He spoke this afternoon at a luncheon sponsored by the Association for Federal Information Resources Management (AFFIRM).

Whatever the solution, Lyons said the technology for US-VISIT can't replace inspectors' skills. When determining how to make the system effective, officials sought to give inspectors more time to interview travelers, noting their answers and body language.

"How can we help the inspector make better admissions decisions?" he said. "That's what it comes to.... Let's let computers do what computers do best and humans do what they do best. That's what we're trying to do."

US-VISIT inspectors swipe visa documents and interview each traveler. The automated process speeds up identity verification, giving inspectors more time, Lyons said.

James Jeffers, Bureau of Customs and Border Protection program manager, initially had doubts about whether inspectors would be able to use US-VISIT and wondered if it would cause travel delays. However, after the successful deployment of the first phase, Jeffers said DHS has increased its credibility as it embarks on future phases. And although concerns remain about rolling the system out at land ports of entry, Jeffers said he is more confident.

"We had serious concerns about whether or not US-VISIT would be able to deliver," he said, also speaking at the AFFIRM event. "They did come through. They did deliver.... There's not nearly as much doubt and concern at this point."

Jeffers credits the success to taking time to test the system with pilot programs, involving end users' feedback in the planning and focusing on training for inspectors. DHS officials deployed information technology professionals to be on hand if there were any problems in the rollout, and a help desk was set up to answer inspectors' questions, Jeffers said.

The inspectors' "biggest complaint is, 'We want more,' " he said. " 'Make it better.' And of course, that's coming."

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