JFK International Mail Facility. (Josh Denmark/CBP)

OIG Finds Security Vulnerabilities at CBP’s International Mail Facility at JFK International Airport

One of U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) top priorities is safeguarding the public by preventing imports of opioids and other illegal items mailed from overseas through the United States Postal Service (USPS).

The Office of Inspector General (OIG) recently concluded an audit to determine whether CBP’s airmail, physical security, and inspection processes at the John F. Kennedy International Airport are adequate to effectively screen, track, and safeguard incoming international mail. The audit was performed to check that CBP had improved processes following an unsatisfactory report by OIG in 2018. But the watchdog found that mail inspection processes and physical security at the JFK International Mail Facility (IMF) have not improved since its prior audit.

JFK is one of nine international mail facilities in the United States and represents the country’s biggest ‘mail room’, handling approximately 60% of all international packages entering the U.S.

OIG said CBP only inspected approximately percent of the 1.3 million pieces of mail it received during the inspector’s June 2019 site visit, adding that “CBP also did not timely inspect and process mail from high-risk countries, creating unmanageable backlogs”. OIG’s review found the deficiencies were largely due to inadequate resources and guidance. Consequently, an unacceptable amount of mail was sent out for delivery without physical inspection. 

The review also found that successful execution of CBP’s targeting and interdiction of prohibited items was hindered, as CBP could not fully account for the targeted mail provided by USPS. OIG said CBP’s targeting of mail for potential violations also had a lower than desired detection rate due to inconsistent and incomplete advanced data on mail content. Amid these challenges, CBP could not ensure that targeted mail was inspected before delivery. 

In addition, the watchdog determined that physical security controls, such as locks and cameras, were not adequate to fully safeguard mail in CBP’s possession. Deficient physical security controls can of course lead to unauthorized access to restricted areas, misplacement of prohibited items, or exposure to dangerous substances. These inadequate physical security controls also increased the risk of insider theft. The doors were not alarmed and IMF staff could therefore access restricted sections to steal mail containing prohibited items such as fentanyl. Because the doors were not alarmed, individuals with malicious intent could enter and exit without anyone being aware of the breach.

A further criticism noted that controls over the information technology infrastructure and systems supporting mail processing were not fully effective. OIG’s report states that “CBP did not correctly patch a server or ensure system controls of a database containing targeting information” and “CBP also had not conducted a Privacy Threshold Analysis on a local database at JFK, placing personal data stored in the system at risk”. CBP is not the only participant in the international airmail inspection process. For example, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) initially requires that foreign airports and air carriers screen international cargo headed to the United States. TSA also inspects air carrier operations at international locations to ensure compliance with security program requirements. The United States Postal Service (USPS) is another key partner in the inspection of international mail. CBP and USPS have established a memorandum of understanding (MOU) on guidelines for working together nationwide to process arriving international air mail.

OIG has made eight recommendations as a result of its review, including providing the support staff and equipment necessary at the IMF to adequately inspect mail in a timely manner. CBP disagreed with this and said the CBP Office of Field Operations Workload Staffing Model estimates a staffing shortage of 2,000+ CBP officers across the nation, throughout all environments, including mail facilities, making it difficult to increase staff numbers. Regarding equipment, CBP said it has initiated several equipment and facility-related projects to modernize the JFK IMF. CBP commissioned a feasibility study to be conducted for the JFK IMF during FY 2020, including assessment of structure, equipment and potential future needs. In addition, CBP has received funding to update the current infrastructure and technology at the JFK IMF. Enhancements include the installation of mail sorting equipment to increase operational efficiency and allow CBP to screen a larger portion of international mail than is currently being processed. The estimated completion date is November 30, 2021.

CBP concurred with the majority of the other recommendations including those on information management, processes, procedure, controls and database reliability.

Read the partially redacted report at OIG

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Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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