U.S. Visit adds system to track departing travelers
- By Wilson P. Dizard III
- Aug 13, 2004
U.S. Visit CIO Scott Hastings says the department plans to refine exit systems that will be sustainable and not inconvenience travelers.
The Homeland Security Department's U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator System program now can track travelers coming and going.
Officials of the Border and Transportation Security Directorate recently unveiled 13 more airport and seaport locations for the pilot exit system, in addition to the two sites that began testing earlier this year.
The department last December began deploying the entry portion of U.S. Visit, which collects passport and biometric information from visitors.
The exit system closes the circle of the emerging virtual border by recording travelers' exits and capturing biometric data.
Within seconds, the exit system checks travelers' fingerprint images at automated kiosks against those stored in the department's IDENT database. Like the U.S. Visit entry system, it also records a digital image of each traveler's face.With a twist
Setting up the exit system in some ways is the most difficult task for U.S. Visit planners, officials and analysts said.
The same administrative and technical challenges apply to the exit system as to the entry segment [GCN, June 21, Page 32
]. But the exit system has an extra twist. Unlike many countries, the United States traditionally has not controlled or recorded travelers' exits, so the physical infrastructure for doing so generally does not exist.
Airports are controlled environments where U.S. Visit entry systems offer some administrative and systems resources to support the exit system'one reason why DHS is starting its exit pilots at airports and seaports.
Land crossing points, in contrast, lack the facilities and secured environment for building a computerized exit system.
DHS officials have not committed themselves to a firm schedule for the exit system at all land ports. Doing so likely will involve an ambitious construction program.
U.S. Visit CIO Scott Hastings said the department plans to develop an exit system that will be sustainable and not inconvenience travelers.
The experience gained at airports and seaports will help in designing the first land exit pilot, which DHS expects to roll out early next year, Hastings said.
Program officials have based the technology for the 13 new exit points on kiosks operating since January at Baltimore-Washington International Airport and the Carnival Cruise Line terminal in Miami.
The kiosks stand about 5 feet high. Each has a scanner for reading fingerprints, a digital camera for photographing travelers and a printer for receipts. The kiosks house Dell Inc. PCs running Microsoft Windows 2000.
Unisys Corp. built the kiosks under a contract with the Transportation Security Administration.
DHS will assign workers at exit points to help travelers use the kiosks. The workers also will have mobile units to capture traveler data.
U.S. Visit officials have been working with airport and airline executives as well as representatives of other countries to inform travelers and work out kinks.
For example, Hastings said, a traveler who enters the country by air and leaves in a car would not be recorded by the exit system.
The exit kiosks will connect to the virtual border program's network of databases. So a traveler who has passed through U.S. Visit's electronic screening at the port of entry and subsequently been added to a terrorist watch list while in the country could still be caught at the border.
Program officials realize such suspect travelers might be only minutes away from boarding a plane or ship when the system finds a hit on a name or biometric data. Hastings said they are trying to determine how to deal with such travelers.
James Carafano, a senior research fellow for defense and homeland security at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington think tank, said that although the exit system is neither complete nor foolproof, it plays a valuable role in overall border management.
'U.S. Visit is not a silver bullet. It doesn't have to have a zero error rate,' Carafano said. 'It just has to work as intended.'
He said it must balance competing goals of tightening security while not impeding legal travel.
Currently, U.S. Visit has large gaps that well-informed enemies could exploit. For example, DHS still is working to coordinate the back-end databases.
But U.S. Visit's fingerprint scanning system already has recorded biometric data on almost 10 million people.
The kiosks at 115 airports and 14 seaports rely on Verifier 300 digital fingerprint scanners from Cross Match Technologies Inc. of Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. So far, the company has provided about 3,000 fingerprint scanners for the entry portion of U.S. Visit. Cross Match announced it has just received an order for 100 more for the exit portion.
Tom Buss, Cross Match executive vice president, said the scanners execute software algorithms inside the U.S. Visit booths and kiosks to evaluate quality of digital fingerprint images.
The software can determine whether an image in fact represents a real human finger, he said. It recognizes aliveness by checking the pore structure, among other qualities. The software can also determine the wavelength of light reflected by a finger to tell if it is, for example, a rubber finger.
'If you put just the tip of your finger on the prism, it will not capture enough of an image,' Buss said. The software can evaluate a partial image to see if it is satisfactory for a database check.
The exit pilots are operating at airports in Agana, Guam; Atlanta; Baltimore; Chicago; Dallas/Fort Worth; Denver; Detroit; Philadelphia; Las Vegas; Phoenix; San Francisco; and San Juan, P.R.; as well as at Miami and Los Angeles seaports.