Homeland Security Eyes Biometric Checks For Air Exits

Homeland Security eyes biometrics checks for air exits

By Chris Strohm
National Journal's Technology Daily
May 7, 2007
Government Executive.com

Faced with mounting congressional pressure, the Homeland Security Department on Monday announced procedures to verify when foreigners leave the United States at airports.

But the department still does not have a timetable to verify when foreigners leave the country through Canada or Mexico, even though doing so is required by law, according to a plan submitted to lawmakers and obtained by Technology Daily.

Foreigners will have to verify their identities with air carriers before boarding airplanes to leave the country, the department said. The identity of each person will be verified through the US-VISIT program using biometrics, which could be a fingerprint scan.

Homeland Security will issue a regulation detailing how the exit system will work. It is part of the department's effort to comply with a 2004 law requiring the US-VISIT program to use biometrics to verify when foreigners leave the country.

Lawmakers increasingly have voiced concerns that the department has unnecessarily delayed implementing a biometric exit system. Indeed, the first bill passed by the new Democratic majority in the House in January would require the department to submit a plan for verifying when foreigners leave the country.

Homeland Security “has determined that US-VISIT air-exit procedures should be incorporated into the existing international visitor-departure process to minimize the effect on visitors and to ensure seamless biometric collection regardless of the visitor's departure point,” the department said.

The department, Congress and the commission that investigated the 2001 terrorism attacks “have consistently recognized biometric exit control as a priority in order to fully secure our nation's borders.”

The department also will begin work this year on a biometric exit system for seaports.

In total, the department plans to spend about $27 million in fiscal 2007 on the air and sea exit systems, according to an expenditure plan for US-VISIT obtained by Tech Daily. The administration is also weighing strategies to help air carriers meet the new requirements, such as financial and technical assistance and possible grants for technology.

“US-VISIT will also consider issuing a request for information for additional scanning devices that would combine the collection of biometrics with a full-page passport scanner,” the plan added. “These options will be refined as [the department] works with air carriers in assessing the costs of both initial deployment and continued operations and maintenance, as well as deploying air exit at pilot locations.”

Homeland Security noted, however, that it does not yet have a system for using biometrics to verify when foreigners leave the country by land, even though doing so also is required by law.

“Because of the immense scope and complexity of the land border, biometric exit information cannot be practically based on biometric validation in the short term,” the expenditure plan said. “Instead, [the department] will initially seek to match records using biographic information in instances where no current collection exists today.”

Homeland Security has not determined a timeframe or cost estimates for initiation of land exits. Lawmakers could not be immediately reached for comment for this story.