Customs and Border Protection K9 finds drugs A U.S. Customs and Border Protection K9 officer rewards his dog on Nov. 28, 2017, after locating narcotics hidden in a package at the International Mail Facility in Chicago. (U.S. Customs and Border Protection photo by Kris Grogan)

GAO: Progress Made in Using Electronic Data to Detect Illegal Opioid Shipments, but Additional Steps Remain

More than 130 Americans die from opioid overdose every day. To help stop opioids from entering the U.S. through the mail, a 2018 law requires the Postal Service to transmit data on international mail shipments to Customs and Border Protection (CBP). CBP then uses this data, such as the recipient’s address and description of contents, to target mail for inspection to find opioids.

A Government Accountability Office (GAO) review found that while the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) and CBP have made progress implementing the law’s requirements, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) hasn’t yet issued regulations to clarify the Postal Service’s data transmission responsibilities.

GAO noted in its December 18 report that both USPS and CBP have taken some steps to implement requirements included in the Synthetics Trafficking and Overdose Prevention Act of 2018 (STOP Act of 2018). For example, the act requires USPS to transmit to CBP certain percentages of the advance electronic data (AED)—such as the contents’ description and shipper’s name—that USPS collects from foreign postal operators. CBP officers analyze the data to target shipments that might contain illegal opioids. Once targeted, USPS presents the shipments to CBP for inspection. The act also required DHS to promulgate regulations detailing USPS’s AED-transmission responsibilities by October 24, 2019.

GAO’s review found that although USPS did not transmit the required percentages of AED to CBP from January 2019 through August 2019, its transmission rates have generally increased. USPS and CBP plan to improve transmission performance by, for example, leveraging agreements with foreign postal operators. DHS was required to promulgate regulations that would clarify key details about how USPS should transmit AED to CBP; however, according to officials, DHS was still working through competing priorities and thus has not yet completed drafting the regulations. Once drafted, DHS must then submit the regulations to the Office of Management and Budget for further review. Establishing a time frame for completing its drafting of the AED regulations and submitting them for further review can help DHS prioritize the effort. Until the regulations are ultimately promulgated, USPS’s AED transmission responsibilities will remain unclear.

GAO reports that USPS and CBP have each taken steps to assess AED quality, but key efforts are ongoing. For example, USPS conducts a monthly assessment to determine the extent to which all AED data it receives are complete. USPS then coordinates with foreign postal operators to address identified data quality issues. CBP plans to support USPS’s quality-improvement efforts by informing USPS of any issues identified through CBP’s assessment approach, which it is currently developing.

In February 2019, CBP initiated a broad analysis as part of the rulemaking process for its AED regulations. This analysis will assess the costs and benefits of using AED to target international mail at all international mail facilities that currently receive the data. CBP previously completed such an assessment during a pilot at USPS and CBP international mail facilities at John F. Kennedy International Airport and found several benefits of using AED versus other methods, including notably higher seizure rates for narcotics.

According to the GAO review, USPS did not meet its goals for presenting targeted international mail shipments to CBP for inspection from January 2019 through August 2019; however, USPS’s presentation performance is generally improving. USPS officials told GAO that USPS plans to implement a variety of technology enhancements intended to improve performance. Although USPS has not met its goals, CBP officials told GAO that USPS’s performance is presently close to the target goal and thus has not substantially affected CBP’s ability to use AED to target international mail shipments for inspection.

GAO has recommended that DHS establish and implement a time frame for completing its drafting of the AED regulations and submitting them to the Office of Management and Budget for further review. DHS concurred and expects to complete the work by the end of May 2020.

Read the full report at GAO

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The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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