US-VISITsystem hitting a technological wall

Published on Thu, Jan 12, 2006 by eg Olson

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US-VISIT system hitting a technological wall

By Meg Olson

The US-VISIT program is entering its third year, and next steps for the system monitoring who comes and goes in the United States involve more technology, but technology that isn’t available yet.

“We’re pushing the industry,” said Jim Williams at a media roundtable discussion January 5. Williams, director of the US-VISIT program for the Department of Homeland Security, said they would be rolling out a plan in the next few months to move from a two-fingerprint and photograph system recording as they enter the country, to a 10-print system. When that plan becomes a reality will depend on when the technology is available to collect those 10 prints quickly and efficiently enough to not put a drag on legitimate travel and trade. “Our requirement is to make the devices faster, more accurate and more mobile,” Williams said.

When they do get around to trying out the 10-print system, Williams said they would start small. “I think we’re looking at pilot testing in some locations, starting with low-volume places where we wouldn’t influence processing times,” he said.

While waiting for the technology to give them the tools they want, the program, which started in January 2004, will continue to record visitor arrivals using the paper form embedded with a radio frequency identification (RFID) tag, taking a digital picture and two fingerprints. Visitors are supposed to hand in their cards when they leave the U.S to provide a record of their departure.

“I don’t think that works very well today,” Williams acknowledged. In airports they are trying kiosks that read fingerprints and handheld RFID readers to scan departures, and at the Peace Arch port of entry they are trying one possible solution for use at land borders, or at least half the solution.

The RFID readers over the northbound lanes just east of the U.S port of entry facility are recording US-VISIT cards that leave the country, testing the accuracy of the readers in capturing the information from cars that can be traveling 40 miles per hour. The hitch is that the system doesn’t match that record with who is in the vehicle, and whether or not it is the same person to whom the card is issued. “We want to know not if a vehicle left the county but if a person did.” Williams said. “Will it work like a toll booth? The alternative is to actually have to stop people. We’ve been trying to test ways around that.”

Stopping people leaving the country, where no infrastructure to do so exists, could contradict the program’s congressional mandate to track entries and exits without clogging the borders, Williams acknowledged. “A gigantic amount of trade goes through our land borders and we don’t want to do anything that hampers that,” he said. “Seconds matter. If we add seconds to each person’s processing it can add hours to that last person in line.”

A technological alternative being considered, Williams said, is to combine a biometric trigger to the RFID tags, such as a thumbprint pressed on the card that would modify the RFID signal to indicate the person who had recorded the RFID on the way into the U.S. had now left the country. “This is something that is a ways off,” Williams said, but if this or another technology can accomplish the goal of tracking exits without stopping cars, he said he didn’t believe “at that time any additional infrastructure will be needed.”

Most Canadians are exempt from the system at this time but Williams has said the program could expand and US-VISIT representative Kimberly Weismann said, “US-VISIT is being designed and upgraded to include additional foreign travelers as new policy decisions are made.”

Another technology challenge for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) will be getting passport readers for the new passports that are required for all visitors from visa-waiver countries in October 2006, embedded with a chip that contains biographic information, a picture and biometrics. “We want to be deploying readers,” Williams said.

The Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative will raise the bar again when all travelers crossing the border, including U.S. citizens, will be required to carry a passport or other travel document deemed by the DHS to be “sufficient to denote identity and citizenship,” as mandated by Congress in the 2004. “The key here is other acceptable travel document,” Williams said, and the answer will be a combination of technology and policy choices. “A passport may not be the right answer. We’re talking a solution that is convenient, yet low cost and would enhance security.” The requirement goes into effect in January 2008.

In using technology to enhance security while keeping traffic moving, Williams said “our toughest challenges in the long term are probably around exit (procedures) and the ability to link databases.” In developing solutions he committed his department to taking the time to find solutions that work. “When you’re dealing with a large scale transactional system you want to get it right, so you test, test, test,” he said.

High-tech solutions at the border cost money. The 2006 budget for US-VISIT is $340 million, as it was in 2005. Once the testing is over deploying certain upgrades, like ten-print readers, will wait until DHS decides how they will be paid for, either by user fees or taxpayers’ dollars. “That’s dependent on funding from Congress,” Williams said.
Some members of Congress, such as representative Rosa DeLauro from Connecticut, are asking questions about the effectiveness and efficiency of the program. In an October 2004 letter DeLauro asked DHS inspector general Richard Skinner for details of how much the “unproven program” was costing, and how it was performing. “I am concerned that despite spending nearly $1 billion in federal appropriations on US VISIT, the program tracks only a small fraction of foreign visitors – fewer than one percent by some reports,” De Lauro wrote. According to a press release from her office a ten-year contract with international consulting firm Accenture to deploy the US-VISIT program is now estimated at up to $10 billion dollars.