U.S. Visit exit system flawed: GAO

The Homeland Security Department's program to document when foreign visitors leave the country does not meet the requirements set by Congress for such a program, the Government Accountability Office concludes in a new report.

Since January 2004, the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology program has been testing an exit tracking system at five land border-crossing stations. The tests use radio frequency identification chips embedded within I-94 documents, which are written records of arrivals and departures issued to foreigners. Readers placed above the border station roads obtain a reading from the RFID chip whenever a person carrying an I-94 document passes by to cross the border.

However, the technology cannot verify whether the person leaving the country is the person to whom the I-94 document was assigned, the GAO said. Therefore, the tests do not meet Congress' requirement to create a biometric exit program to track the exits of foreign visitors.

"An interim nonbiometric exit technology being tested does not meet the statutory requirement for a biometric exit capability and cannot ensure that visitors who enter the country are those who leave," the GAO said.

In addition, the RFID tests have encountered "numerous performance and reliability problems, such as the failure of RFID readers to detect a majority of travelers' tags during testing," the GAO wrote. Further testing is planned to address those concerns.

The current tests by U.S. Visit are being conducted in lieu of a full biometric program, the GAO found.

U.S. Visit officials have decided not to implement a biometric exit program at this time because the currently-available biometric technology is not adequate, the GAO wrote. The officials have determined that current technologies would cost an estimated $3 billion, require new infrastructure and produce major traffic congestion at an unacceptable level, the report said.

What's more, U.S. Visit officials said it will take five to 10 years for new technologies to develop that will enable biometric verification of persons exiting the country without incurring a major impact on existing facilities.

The GAO noted that U.S. Visit was supposed to have informed Congress of its plans for a visitor exit program by June 2005, but as of October 2006, the plans were still under review by Secretary Michael Chertoff.

Without such a plan, the GAO said it is not clear how U.S. Visit will interact with other border crossing programs, such as the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, which the department has said will use RFID cards to track entry and exit of certain visitors and residents.

The GAO recommended that U.S. Visit report on the costs, benefits and feasibility of deploying biometric and nonbiometric exit capabilities at the land border ports; describe how to transition from the nonbiometric capability to a biometric capability; and describe how to ensure that various border crossing identification programs work in harmony.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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