Homeland Security Explores Ambitious Plan to Collect More Personal Data From Foreign Travelers

The department will try to gather biometric data on all departing foreigners without causing delays.

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The Department of Homeland Security is studying how best to implement a little-noticed congressional mandate to gather, search, and store biometric data from all foreign visitors leaving the country. The objective is to collect better data on foreigners who violate the law while in the country or who overstay their visas.

Foreigners coming to the United States already face a string of requirements for entry, from providing digital fingerprints and photographs to a new rule that goes into force in a few months for travelers—even from countries like France, Italy, and the United Kingdom—to register their airline itineraries three days before arrival. The new measures could end up discouraging more foreigners from traveling to the United States for either business or tourism as the process becomes increasingly onerous.

DHS, which oversees Customs and Border Protection, is in the process of studying systems to handle the millions of visitors and estimates that the program will cost some $3 billion and have an accuracy rate of 97 percent. To that end, the department has already asked for a three-fold increase in the US-VISIT program budget to cover the cost of pilot studies and additional analysis of the program.

Land crossings into Canada and Mexico are one of the biggest hurdles for data gathering because of the sheer volume of travelers. A separate, though related, project from DHS will capture data from foreigners departing on international airlines.

A report from DHS on the initial stages of the data-gathering program is scheduled for release by the end of the year, says department spokeswoman Anna Hinken.

Travelers, including all American citizens, are already subject to search without suspicion at border crossings and occasionally have electronic devices searched, duplicated, and stored.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post today reported that DHS has been gathering information at border crossing points in a federal database that can be shared with intelligence and law enforcement agencies. The data, long collected for air travelers and only recently expanded to all land border crossings, can be stored by the federal agency for 15 years, according to a notice published in the Federal Register. Some nonimmigrant aliens face the possibility that their records will be stored for a "75-year retention period."

For years, DHS has collected the details, digital fingerprints, and photographs of foreigners arriving in the United States as part of congressionally mandated rule changes passed in the wake of 9/11. Yet the first law requiring that customs gather data on entry and exits was passed in 1996. The biometrics requirement was added in 2003. Until last year, visitors had to scan two fingerprints into the system. Now, it's a full 10-print scan.

Years after lawmakers required the changes, advances in technology may make the data-gathering system feasible. Until recently, the sheer volume of people had made collecting information impractical.

Some 10 million foreign visitors leave the country through one of the 167 land border crossings each year. In 2006, for instance, a DHS official said that to avoid creating major delays at border crossing points because of the additional data collection, the department may have to spend tens of billions of dollars to refit existing crossing points with additional traffic lanes and associated infrastructure.

But the technology is catching up. Next summer, all passports used at border crossings must be machine readable, and many will contain radio-frequency chips that—at least in theory—could allow border guards to scan arriving and departing visitors as their cars roll through checkpoints. That's the hope anyway—an EZ-Pass-style system for border crossings.

Still, even without radio chips, significant technical hurdles make gathering fingerprints, facial scans, and other bits of biometric data a staggeringly complicated proposition.

From 2004 to 2006, DHS conducted pilot studies in Chicago and Baltimore to gather biometrics from exiting travelers, but the program was not particularly successful because many passengers simply didn't visit the kiosks as they were directed. A report from the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, concluded in May that the DHS "had yet to define and economically justify a comprehensive strategic solution for controlling and monitoring the exit of foreign visitors." In 2007, the GAO warned that the DHS biometrics projects through US-VISIT were lacking. "The program's long-term strategy and vision have remained unknown because DHS has yet to approve the US-VISIT strategic plan."