GAO: DHS's plans for tracking foreigners leaving U.S. needs work

Published 15 December 2008

GAO says that DHS has not developed accurate cost estimates for the proposed tracking of travelers leaving the U.S. and has failed to include how much the system would cost airlines and cruise lines to build

For a long time now, security experts have argued that it made little sense to invest billions of dollars to ascertain the identity of people coming into the United States as visitors, students, and temporary employees — if no system exists to track who leaves the United States: if you do not track who leaves, you do not know who stayed (illegally). DHS has a plan to require commercial airlines and cruise lines to verify when foreign travelers leave the United States — but the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has issued a report saying that the plan suffers from inaccurate cost estimates, poor security controls, and technical obstacles.

NextGov’s Allan Holmes writes that in April, DHS issued a notice that it was devising a plan to set up a system in which airlines and cruise lines would match the fingerprints of foreign visitors boarding planes or ships to leave the United States with the fingerprints in a DHS database. That database would also shows the date a visitor entered the United States. The exit system was supposed to be the back-end of the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology program. The proposal was met with sharp criticism from the airline industry, which claims a system to collect fingerprints would cost billions of dollars to build and maintain.

Holmes writes that DHS plans to test an exit system next year at selected airports, but did not say where it plans to deploy the system. The department also did not identify the technology that airlines would use to identify foreign visitors leaving the country.

GAO reported that DHS has not developed accurate cost estimates for the proposal and has failed to include how much the system would cost airlines and cruise lines to build. The GAO report also notes that requiring commercial carriers to collect and transmit fingerprints would increase the risk that cyberthieves could steal personal information, the audit agency concluded. DHS’s requirement to have “carriers collect the biometric information is less secure than alternatives where DHS collects the information, regardless of the information collection point,” the report noted. GAO also reported that public comments on the proposal “raised additional concerns,” such as DHS not providing technical requirements for commercial carriers to follow to build the systems.

GAO’s report on the US VISIT exit system was part of an overall analysis of how DHS has complied with the 2008 Consolidated Appropriations Act. The report says that fiscal year 2008 US VISIT expenditure plan did not fully satisfy certain conditions laid out in the law such as properly certifying the investment process for the US VISIT system or verifying that DHS has enough employees to execute the plan.