DHS wants biometric helping hand
But call for input meets skepticism over feasibility and costs for next phase of US-VISIT
- By Alice Lipowicz
- Jun 12, 2008
Five years after Congress ordered biometric
tracking of foreign visitors leaving the United
States by land and after spending millions of
dollars on planning and testing that yielded
limited results, the Homeland Security
Department is now seeking the private sector's
help to address the challenge.
The department issued a request for information
in May soliciting ideas for its U.S.
Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator
Technology (US-VISIT) Biometric Land Exit
The technology solution could cost $3 billion
or more if fully implemented. DHS,
which has scheduled an industry day for June
30, is allocating additional funds toward an
Despite the large size of the opportunity,
the renewed effort has received mixed reactions.
Although they are somewhat optimistic,
industry executives and analysts say the technical
hurdles are substantial and difficult to
"The goal of identifying travelers in their
vehicles ? whether cars, trains or buses ? is a
particularly challenging issue," said Raj
Nanavati, a partner at International Biometric
Group, a consulting firm in New York.
"Everyone is struggling with this globally."
Even so, there is some hope that the
impasse could be broken. "The consensus is
that something will be done for land port
exits," said Jeremy Potter, senior analyst at
Input Inc., a market research firm in Reston,
Va. "Now that the RFI has been issued, it
enables a dialogue to take
place. It creates buzz."
But DHS is also confronting
some skepticism, given its past failures
to meet several deadlines for deploying
an exit solution. "Our members are not overwhelmingly
excited about it," said Walter
Hamilton, chairman of the International
Biometric Industry Association.
In addition to the RFI, US-VISIT program
officials are asking for a budget increase in
fiscal 2009 of $42.6 million ?
from $13 million currently ?
for land, sea and air exit programs.
The funding will go for land exit project
integration and analysis, land exit planning
and design, and biometric air/sea exit,
said US-VISIT spokeswoman Anna Hinken.
DHS is also preparing a report on the exit
programs, which is due by the end of the year.
The current effort is the latest in a long
line of starts and stops in DHS' attempts to
monitor the arrivals and departures of foreign
visitors. Congress created the original
requirement for entry and exit tracking in
1996 and then added biometric verification in
To date, US-VISIT has cost about $1.5 billion,
according to a February report by the
Government Accountability Office, including
about $417 million spent on planning and
testing for land, air and sea exit systems. The
program has focused primarily on collecting
fingerprints and digital photographs of foreign
visa holders when they apply for visas
and for verifying entry into the United States.
The prime contractor is Accenture Ltd.
For airport departures, DHS recently issued
a notice of proposed rulemaking requiring airlines
to collect biometric information during
passengers' check-in. For land exits, DHS conducted
15 months of prototype testing in
which radio frequency identification (RFID)
chips were embedded in I-94 documents
issued to foreign visitors and then scanned
remotely when the visitors drove through exit
lanes at border crossings. However, the test
did not include biometric verification.
In December 2006, GAO judged those tests
to be inadequate and unsuccessful in meeting
Congress' requirements. At that time, USVISIT
officials concluded they would not
implement a biometric exit capability because
it would cost as much as $3 billion and cause
major delays at the land border stations.
Stewart Baker, assistant secretary for policy
at DHS, said in 2006 that an exit capability
would require construction of new lanes
and installation of new readers and infrastructure
that would cost in the tens of billions
The recent RFI asks industry respondents
to identify potential technologies, devices and
procedures for the nation's 167 land entry
points. The goal is at least 97 percent accuracy.
Responses are due by July 16.
DHS said it might issue a request for proposals
as early as January 2009.
US-VISIT officials said it will take five to 10
years for new technologies to develop to check
fingerprints of people exiting the country
without a major impact on existing facilities.
Current technology choices include RFID
tags, which can be read at a distance of 20 to
30 feet, and handheld fingerprint scanners
and readers. In the previous US-VISIT testing,
RFID tags were to be read at a distance
while the document holders in vehicles
passed through exit lanes.
However, the resulting scans were not consistently
accurate, which industry sources
blamed on poor reader placement that caused
multiple reads, poor positioning of the RFID
chips within the vehicles ? for example, on
documents stored in briefcases ? and possibly
too many simultaneous reads, such as for
multiple travelers on a bus.
Nanavati said the department is displaying
flexibility by saying it is willing to consider
fingerprint, iris, facial recognition and other
modalities rather than only the 10 fingerprints
in the US-VISIT entry program.
A handheld scanner, or possibly cards or
tokens on which to place a fingerprint, might
be used to collect fingerprints from occupants
in a moving vehicle. "But with 10 prints, it is
a lot more complicated and you need a bigger
device," Nanavati said. "Everyone sees a need
for this, but there is no easy answer."
Jeremy Grant, senior vice president of
identity solutions at Stanford Group Co., a
research group in Washington, suggests
that US-VISIT temporarily try not to
read biometrics from occupants of a
moving vehicle. If the visa holders can
be made to use a separate lane or
approach a kiosk before reaching the border,
their fingerprints could be checked
manually, he said. Typically, US-VISIT
visa holders represent about 3 percent of
the land border traffic, according to DHS
Robert Mocny, DHS' director of USVISIT,
told Washington Technology earlier
this year that he was hopeful industry
would develop better solutions for the biometric
land exit program in time to satisfy
Congress. "We don't have the answer right
now," he said. "We will hold industry days
and hope to have an answer soon."
US-VISIT's biometric exit system ought to
be more fully defined to focus on specific
objectives, Grant said. In theory, everyone's
identity might need to be verified to authenticate
each US-VISIT visa holder's identity
upon exit. It might also be possible to achieve
the same objective by creating penalties for
visa holders who fail to voluntarily check out
when leaving the country, he said. For example,
those visa holders might be prevented
from re-entering the United States at a later
Meanwhile, Grant said, the program is
likely to continue moving forward in the
planning stage, as it has in recent years
but not necessarily moving any closer to
"My clients are asking me if there will be a
positive impact on the industry from biometric
exit this year," Grant said. "I say, 'Don't
count on it.'"Alice Lipowicz (firstname.lastname@example.org) 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.