DHS clarifies rules for virtual border system

The Homeland Security Department today issued an interim rule covering its plans for extending the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology system to the 50 busiest land ports of entry by the end of the year.

The department already has fielded the virtual border system at 115 airports and 14 seaports, where it has led to the exclusion of 196 criminal aliens from the country.

The department said for the first time that the project to extend the biometric system to the 50 land border crossings would cost $155 million. Officials did not immediately respond to a request for clarification of how that money would be spent.

However, the Federal Register notice issued today states, 'These expenditures are required to upgrade the information technology hardware (i.e. desktop hardware and peripherals, upgrading local and wide area networks) at the affected ports.'

In the notice, DHS reviewed many of the issues raised in the 21 comments received from the public on its Jan. 5 interim rule on U.S. Visit and requested additional comments. The department received detailed comments from representatives of airports, airlines, travel associations, trade groups, the privacy community, attorneys, two universities, a foreign government and other companies.

The department's responses to the comments provide a detailed look under the hood of the policies, regulations and laws that govern the program. DHS made some technical changes to the program in response to the comments but rejected most of the suggestions with explanations.

The notice did reveal that DHS is exploring the capabilities of an enhanced version of the U.S. Visit exit system kiosks it has fielded at 15 airports and seaports.

The department also described a three-stage process through which a traveler can seek 'redress' of mistakes made because of the U.S. Visit system. The first opportunity for data correction is at the port of entry, where Customs and Border Protection officials can correct biographic information.

A second level of appeal is through the U.S. Visit program's privacy office, where privacy officer Steve Yonkers reviews travel records and can change them as necessary. The department's chief privacy officer, Nuala O'Connor Kelly, carries out the third level of appeal.

In response to one commenter's expressed concerns about database integration, DHS said, 'Over time, U.S. Visit will continue to integrate appropriate additional databases and ensure interoperability with other databases as appropriate.'

The department also noted that its previous interim rule did not include a list of all the databases the system uses because of their 'sensitive nature relating to law enforcement and intelligence.'


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