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DHS plans for tracking foreigners leaving the U.S. remain sketchy

The Homeland Security Department's plan to require commercial airlines and cruise lines to verify when foreign travelers leave the country suffers from inaccurate cost estimates, poor security controls and technical obstacles, according to a Government Accountability Office report released on Friday.

In April, Homeland Security issued a notice that it intended to set up a system in which airlines and cruise lines would match the fingerprints of foreign visitors planning to board planes or ships to leave the country with those in a DHS database, which also includes when a visitor entered the United States. The exit system would be the back-end of the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology program. The proposal has drawn sharp criticism from the airline industry, which claims a system to collect fingerprints would cost billions of dollars to build.

Homeland Security plans to test an exit system next year at selected airports, but has not identified where it plans to deploy the system. Neither has the department identified the technology that airlines would use to identify foreign visitors leaving the country.

DHS has not developed accurate cost estimates for the proposal and has failed to include how much the system would cost airlines and cruise lines to build, GAO reported. In addition, requiring commercial carriers to collect and transmit fingerprints would increase the risk that cyberthieves could steal personal information, the audit agency concluded.

Homeland Security's requirement to have "carriers collect the biometric information is less secure than alternatives where DHS collects the information, regardless of the information collection point," the report noted.

GAO also reported that public comments on the proposal "raised additional concerns," such as DHS not providing technical requirements for commercial carriers to follow to build the systems.

The agency's remarks on the US VISIT exit system were part of an overall analysis of how DHS has complied with the 2008 Consolidated Appropriations Act. The fiscal year 2008 US VISIT expenditure plan did not fully satisfy certain conditions laid out in the law such as properly certifying the investment process for the US VISIT system or verifying that DHS has enough employees to execute the plan.

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