DHS rolls out exit system pilots

The Homeland Security Department's U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator System program today unveiled 13 additional locations for its pilot exit system at airports and seaports.

The U.S. Visit exit systems complete the circle of the emerging virtual border system by recording travelers' exits and capturing biometric information at the borders.

Standing up the exit system at the border in some ways is the most difficult task facing U.S. Visit planners, officials and analysts have observed.

The challenges of creating the exit system partly mirror the problems that DHS' Border and Transportation Security Directorate will face in implementing the entry segment of U.S. Visit.

But the exit system segment of U.S. Visit has an additional problem. Unlike many other countries, the United States traditionally has not controlled or recorded travelers' exits from the country at all, so the physical infrastructure for doing so generally does not exist.

Airports are, at least, controlled environments where U.S. Visit entry systems already operate, which provides some administrative and systems resources for operating the exit system. That's one reason DHS is starting its first exit system pilots in airports and seaports.

Land crossing points, by contrast, tend to lack the facilities or the secured environments for implementing a computerized exit system. DHS officials have not committed themselves to a firm schedule to implement the exit system at all land points of exit. Doing so likely will involve an ambitious physical construction program, which in some cases will have to be implemented in the middle of cities where land for new roads and pedestrian pathways is expensive.

U.S. Visit CIO Scott Hastings said today that program officials seek to implement systems at airports that will be sustainable and not inconvenience legitimate travelers.

The experience gained at airports and seaports will help U.S. Visit officials design the first land border exit pilot, which they expect to roll out early next year, Hastings said.

Program officials have based the technology used in the 13 additional sea and air exit points on exit system kiosks now operating at Baltimore Washington International Airport and the Carnival Cruise Line terminal in Miami. Those two initial pilots have been operating since Jan. 5. (GCN story).

The U.S. Visit exit kiosks stand about 5 feet high. They include a scanner for reading fingerprints, a digital camera for photographing travelers and a printer for issuing receipts. The kiosks also house Dell PCs running Microsoft Windows 2000.

Unisys Corp. built the systems under its contract with the Transportation Security Administration.

DHS will provide trained contractor staff members at the exit points to help travelers use the kiosks. The contractor staff also will use mobile units to capture traveler data. (GCN story)

The contractor staff will keep an eye out in case travelers try to sign out via the exit system and then turn around to remain in the country, Hastings said. Such a traveler could both foil antiterrorist protections and succeed in overstaying a visa, he noted.

'Our premise going in is that it is the traveler's burden to make sure they comply,' Hastings said. U.S. Visit program officials have been working with airport executives and representatives of other countries as well as airlines to help inform travelers about the systems and work out kinks.

Hastings noted that a traveler who entered the country by air and left in a car would not be recorded by the exit system.

The exit system units will have real-time connections to the virtual border program's network of databases, Hastings said.

As a result, a situation could arise in which a traveler who had passed through the U.S. Visit system's electronic screening at the port of entry and subsequently been added to a terrorist watch list while in the country could be caught at the border.

Program officials realize that such suspect travelers may only be minutes away from boarding a plane or ship when the system generates a 'hit' on their name or biometric data, Hastings said. They are working to determine how to deal with such travelers at the exit gate or internationally.

The exit pilots now are operating at these sites: airports in Agana, Guam; Atlanta; Baltimore; Chicago; Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas; Denver; Detroit; Philadelphia; Las Vegas; Phoenix; San Francisco; and San Juan, P.R.; as well as the seaports in Miami and Los Angeles.

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