A controversial plan to have airlines collect biometric data from foreign passengers leaving the United States is still a possibility, a Department of Homeland Security official said.
DHS’ US-VISIT program collects fingerprints and digital photos from visitors arriving in the United States, but does not have a system in place to verify if and when travelers have departed.
The program has run several pilot projects to collect this data, but has not come up with a solution. A proposal to have airlines collect the information for DHS has been met with widespread opposition from the industry.
That option is still on the table, said Steve Yonkers, deputy assistant director of business policy and planning at the US-VISIT program.
The department has tested two portable biometric collection devices, one that fits inside a small case, and another handheld version, that can collect fingerprints and photographs.
Both Transportation Security Administration screeners and Customs and Border Protection agents have used the collection devices to see not only if they worked, but also to determine if they had an impact on operations. For example, how quickly can passengers move through all the security checks?
“Overall, we found that the technologies worked extremely well. And both CBP and TSA say they are viable options,” Yonkers said at the National Defense Industrial Association biometrics conference.
Yonkers suggested that it could still be airlines rather than DHS employees using the handheld and portable devices.
Finding a spot in airports to collect the data has been one issue preventing the collection of departure information. US-VISIT previously tried a pilot program where kiosks were set up in airports, and passengers were asked to scan their documents before departing. The kiosks were difficult to locate because airports did not want to give up prime space that could be used by vendors.
In 2008, the agency set up kiosks at airports in Atlanta and Detroit with TSA or CBP personnel manning the stations. They were placed at “chokepoints,” areas where all travelers passed by as they made their way to their flights. The agencies had better results than they did with the unmanned kiosks, DHS spokeswoman Anna Hinken told National Defense last year. It would cost $1.3 billion to $2.8 billion to expand exit programs nationwide, she said.
The findings of the latest pilot program will be presented to DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano, and she will make the final decision on whether they will be fielded, Yonkers said.