US-VISIT expands its vision
With success and money, DHS program could fuel more opportunities
- By Alice Lipowicz
- Feb 22, 2008
US-VISIT Director Robert Mocny recently
was a foreign visitor himself ? in Japan,
where he experienced firsthand how that
country's border officials process the fingerprints
of incoming and departing travelers.
"It is a very orderly process:
You queue up to enter, and
you queue up to exit," Mocny
said. "We don't have that."
But we soon will if Mocny succeeds in
implementing the next phase of the U.S.
Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator
Technology program. The Homeland Security
Department's largest ongoing information
technology program has been allocated more
than $1.8 billion since 2004. He said he
intends to release a plan shortly for checking
fingerprints of foreign visitors departing from
The plan could open work on the initiative
to more companies than just Accenture Ltd.,
the prime contractor on US-VISIT.
The border control program collects fingerprints
from foreign visitors applying for U.S.
visas. The fingerprints are screened against a
database of criminals and suspected terrorists.
When the visitor arrives, the fingerprints are
matched against the prints that were
approved for the visa.
US-VISIT has been a quiet IT powerhouse
since DHS was formed in March 2003. But
the department's inspector general and the
Government Accountability Office have criticized
DHS for poor management and failing
to integrate US-VISIT with other DHS
"US-VISIT is a success, but it also is widely
scrutinized," said Jeremy Grant, senior vice
president at the Stanford Group research firm.
"The real question is what will the next administration
do with it." The next administration
might open bidding for US-VISIT work or
send more task orders through the Enterprise
Acquisition Gateway for Leading Edge
Solutions vehicle, the multibillion-dollar
EAGLE contract held by several government
contractors, he said.
"It is not clear either way
whether US-VISIT will continue
to spend at current rates," said Jeremy
Potter, senior analyst at Input Inc., a market
research firm in Reston, Va.
Accenture officials were not available for
With an international fingerprint database
larger than the FBI's, with Japan and the
European Union following US-VISIT's lead,
and with a blueprint in the works for further
growth, Mocny said, US-VISIT has a bright
future as the nation's biometric engine for border
"People are knocking on our door, where
once they were critical," he said.
But the program still has hurdles to overcome
and little time to do so before the next
president's administration. US-VISIT has met
nearly all its big milestones, but instead of
winding down, Mocny said he envisions continued
expansion. His stature could be growing,
too, because he is one of a small number
of DHS executives with long tenure at the
US-VISIT has churned out plenty of work
for Accenture and its team members and will
likely continue to do so through the year.
"There has been a lot of money spent on
US-VISIT but without enough oversight,"
said Marc Rotenberg, executive director at
the Electronic Privacy Information Center.
"US-VISIT defines mission creep: It has
gotten larger with each wave."
Under Mocny's tenure, US-VISIT has
accomplished several major goals.
"We have become the DHS biometrics service
provider; we share data with DHS branches,
state and local," Mocny said. The system
has 33,000 users and 90 million fingerprints,
in contrast to the FBI's 48 million fingerprints.Busy times ahead
The program is on track to meet its current
milestone: conversion to a 10-fingerprint
system and better information sharing with
the FBI database. By December, 10-fingerprint
scanners and readers will be deployed at
airports and land ports. Updated systems are
now operating at airports in Chicago, San
Francisco and Washington, among others.
Within weeks, Mocny said, he expects to
release the final rule for US-VISIT to begin
taking fingerprints from legal residents ?
so-called green card holders ? returning from
Also within weeks, Mocny wants to publish
a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking for an exit
program at U.S. airports. The rule might
require airlines to collect fingerprints of
departing foreign visitors at check-in, an idea
that the airlines oppose because they say it is a
government responsibility. Mocny declined to
provide details, but he said administration
officials hope to address some of the airlines'
concerns in the notice.
Mocny said the budget for the airline program
this year is $43 million.
"We need to move the idea forward so we
can engage with the airlines," he said. "We
have to use the infrastructure that is available:
the checking, the ticketing, the gates, security.
My guess is that there is a solution we can
develop by the June 2009 time frame to report
to Congress."Hurdles to clear
By December 2008, Mocny said, he hopes
to tackle one of the thorniest challenges of
US-VISIT: tracking foreign-visitor exits using
biometrics at land ports. An ideal solution
would permit visitors to have a finger scanned
as they pass through a checkpoint in a vehicle
at normal speeds. But the needed technology
does not exist yet, he said.
In 2004, the department tested long-range
radio frequency identification tags implanted
in I-94 documents provided to foreign visitors.
The idea was to track the documents'
movements across the border. But the tests
did not meet Congress' requirement to use
biometrics to verify identities. What's more,
the RFID verifications had such poor accuracy
that DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff publicly
called them a failure.
Mocny said the tests nonetheless proved
that RFID tags could be effective in capturing
information quickly from people in moving
vehicles. "Were the results as good as we
wanted? No. Was the system ready for prime
time? No," he said.
Nevertheless, Mocny said he is hopeful that
industry will come up with better solutions in
time to satisfy Congress.
"We don't have the answer right now," he
added. "We will hold industry days and hope
to have an answer soon."
On the horizon, US-VISIT will work on
additional integrations with the FBI's fingerprint
system and its new Next Generation
Identification system for collecting photographs,
palm prints and possibly iris scans.
DHS officials would like to retool US-VISIT to
collect photographs and iris scans, he said, and
perhaps acquire facial-recognition technology.
"At some point, we'll test facial recognition
and iris recognition," Mocny said. "Fingerprints
are basic. But since we don't have fingerprints
on everyone, there could be a role for
Mocny anticipates having a strategic plan
for US-VISIT by May that outlines a vision for
global integration with other exit and entry
systems. Japan has adopted a program comparable
to US-VISIT, and the European Union
is also considering such a system.
"What you will see is a globalization of like-minded
systems," Mocny said, "to keep the bad
guys [out] of all our respective countries."Alice Lipowicz (email@example.com) is a
staff writer at Washington Technology.
Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.