DHS launches second test of biometric exit processes

Officials are determining whether Customs and Border agents or airport screeners are better positioned to collect information from visitors leaving the country.

Customs and Border Protection agents on Wednesday began testing a system for collecting passengers' fingerprints as they check in for international flights, as part of a larger effort to determine the most efficient process for verifying outbound travelers' identities.

The fiscal 2009 omnibus appropriations act mandated the exit-tracking program, launched at the Metropolitan Wayne County Airport in Detroit. Congress also required the Homeland Security Department to conduct a pilot program to collect biometric information at Transportation Security Administration checkpoints. That effort kicked off nearly two weeks ago in Hartsfield Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

DHS began to collect fingerprints from travelers entering the United States in 2004 as part of the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology program. Developing biometric exit procedures, however, has proved more challenging.

"When we did the initial pilots [for exit procedures] between 2004 and 2007, we determined quickly that the technology worked," said US VISIT Director Robert Mocny. "We could collect the fingerprints, and even send signals back to authorities to say, 'This person is wanted, take action.' What didn't work was the process. ...You just don't usually check out of the U.S., so the exit process is really new for people. We need to get the word out and do it in such a way that they understand and want to comply."

The pilot programs will last 35 days, with TSA employing handheld computers to collect fingerprints, and CBP using both handhelds and jump kits that contain a fingerprint device, visa or passport reader, and a mobile computer. Homeland Security officials will evaluate whether the trial exit processes delay departures or make it more difficult for passengers to catch their flights, and will determine by July which approach for collecting the biometrics data worked best. A final rule for exit procedures at all airports and seaports will be issued between January and March 2010, Mocny said.

"Frankly, it will come down to which agency really wants to do this, and how much it will cost to deploy," he said. CBP may prove more manageable, however, because DHS only would need to deploy technologies for biometric exit procedures at the 80 CBP locations in airports that already perform departure checks on international travelers.

Despite a requirement in the appropriations act for a third pilot with airlines collecting the biometric information, the airlines refuse to participate, Mocny said.

Homeland Security also continues to struggle with procedures for tracking departures by land.

"There is this infrastructure we call airports and seaports, but there are no 'land ports,' " Mocny said. Homeland Security officials plan to work with the Canadian and Mexican governments to determine whether they can help implement exit procedures. In addition, officials are weighing the possibility of constructing facilities for collecting biometric information along the borders.

"That would mean building a whole new infrastructure to handle the 2 percent or 3 percent of travelers that exit the country by land," Mocny said. "It's not impossible; but given all that is on the administration's plate, I expect a slower rollout process."