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GAO Report Highlights RFID Weaknesses in US-VISIT

Citing low read rates of an RFID system that US-VISIT is testing, as well as other concerns, the Government Accountability Office wants an updated report on the goals and progress of the program.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor
The DHS began testing the RFID technology at five U.S. border-crossing points in 2005. To date, 459,000 of the RFID-enabled forms have been distributed. The department says the documents' read rates at entrances—where the system reads them right after they are newly issued, or when presented by visitors who have already been issued the forms on a previous visit—are higher than at the exit points. Visitors at entrance points are also stopped and questioned, which leaves them within the read zone for a longer period of time. The system successfully reads 95 percent of the forms issued to pedestrians upon entry, a DHS spokesperson says, while 27 to 86 percent of the forms within vehicles are read at entrance points (the percentages vary from one land port to the next).

When it rolled out the US-VISIT program, the DHS decided to install cameras and fingerprint scanners at land border entrances, allowing the system to collect biometrics of select categories of visitors—specifically, international travelers from countries in the Visa Waiver Program (VWP). Thus far, the DHS has not installed biometric equipment or an infrastructure to compare the biometrics of visitors leaving the country with those collected upon entry. Doing so, the department decided, would be too expensive.

What's more, Agen says, most land borders have only one exit lane for cars, and the likely traffic congestion that would result from making visitors stop at the exit gates and submit to biometric screening would be too problematic. Therefore, the US-VISIT program is relying only on the collection of the I-94a forms' RFID data to ascertain that visitors have left the country. By knowing which visitors have departed, government officials can track down those who have not left at the end of their permitted stays.

The report criticizes the DHS's RFID-based exit-monitoring system, saying it does not meet the US-VISIT program's mandate to identify visitors biometrically, and that the use of RFID as it is deployed does not prevent someone from leaving the country with someone else's RFID-enabled form.

The GAO requests that the DHS issue a report on how it plans to move to a biometrically based identification system requiring departing visitors to submit to a photo and fingerprint scan at land border exits. The agency also wants to know how the DHS will mitigate any negative impacts caused by such a system (for example, increased processing times and traffic congestion at border crossings).

Some recent news reports have indicated that the DHS has decided to drop its plans to add biometric equipment, and to interview visitors at land border exits. Agen, however, claims that is not true. "We are not abandoning plans for using biometrics at [land] exits," he says, adding that no deadlines have been set for the DHS to use biometrics at land borders under US-VISIT. When the department can deploy the technology in a cost-effective manner—and in a way that will not cause major traffic problems—it says it will eventually deploy biometrics.

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