by CIO Staff

Department of Homeland Security Drops US-VISIT Departure-Tracking Efforts using Biometrics

Dec 15, 20063 mins
IT Strategy

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has for the time being dropped its efforts to create a facial or fingerprint recognition system that would track departures of many foreign visitors, citing a lack of funding and the appropriate technologies, The New York Times reports.

The system, dubbed United States Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology (US-VISIT), has in the past been described as a necessary tool for domestic security as well as a valuable resource in cutting down on illegal immigration.

The terrorist attacks on New York City in 2001 spotlighted the importance of visitor tracking systems because a number of hijackers involved were later found to have remained in the United States after their visas had expired, according to the Times.

Despite the clear benefits of such a tracking system, DHS officials are now saying they don’t have the appropriate funding or technology to meet a December 2007 deadline for having such systems set up at 50 U.S. border-crossing areas, the Times reports. Since many foreign visitors to the United States enter via Mexico or Canada, domestic security officials will be unable to determine who leaves the country when and at which crossing without such a departure-tracking system, according to the Times.

The findings of a recent report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the investigative division of Congress, coincide with the thoughts of the DHS officials, according to the Times. The GAO report predicted the development of the necessary technology to launch a cost-effective facial or fingerprint recognition exit-tracking system could take as long as a decade, the Times reports.

Congress ordered that a system to track the departures of foreign visitors be created in 1996, according to the Times. Such a system would help the United States identify foreigners with expired visas who have not left the country.

Starting in early 2004, visitors to the United States had their fingerprints scanned under US-VISIT, and since that time some 64 million travelers have been screened and 1,300 people blocked from entering the country due to criminal or immigration violations, the Times reports.

Americans, as well as the majority of Canadians and Mexicans, are exempt from the fingerprint and photograph requirements of US-VISIT, so only about 2 percent of the people who enter the United States actually have a photo taken or fingerprint scanned, according to the Times.

Due to the costly nature of facial and fingerprint scanning systems, DHS officials say they have experimented with a number of cheaper alternatives—including the use of radio frequency identification (RFID) tags within travel forms—to track visitors leaving the United States, but none has proven particularly effective, the Times reports. A GAO report that examined the accuracy of the RFID method found that in a test of 166 vehicles that held documents with tags embedded, only 14 percent were correctly identified, according to the Times.

Since the 2003 fiscal year, DHS has dedicated some $1.7 billion to tracking arrivals and departures of foreign visitors, the Times reports.

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