US-VISIT: Bringing biometrics to the border

Steven Spielberg’s latest film, “The
Terminal,” features a hapless Eastern European traveler, played by Tom
Hanks. Due to problems with an immigration database at New York’s John
F. Kennedy International Airport, Hanks is forced to live like a
refugee in the airport for nine months, scrounging a living by
collecting baggage carts for quarters, until he finds an off-the-books
job with a construction union refurbishing a terminal.

“I am unacceptable,” Hanks repeatedly says of his situation in a thick, Eastern European accent.

Theater of the absurd—or black comedy—is how
most critics view the summer film. But it’s also a nightmare haunting
critics of the US-VISIT Program—and its defenders.

The project is already generating controversy
all over the globe, with foreign governments protesting the
surveillance of their citizens. The Chinese government complained that
the program strips people of “dignity and privacy.” The Brazilian
government retaliated by fingerprinting American citizens coming to
Brazil. Domestic critics argue that delays and discouragement of travel
into the United States may be smothering the nascent economic recovery.
Contractually, the program has run into controversy in the wake of a
$10 billion contract award in May to Accenture, LLP, located in

The program

US-VISIT—shorthand for The United States
Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology—is the most complex
system of identification ever launched by any nation at any time.

Deployed by the Department of Homeland
Security (DHS), the program is aimed at bolstering the US’s ability to
collect information on foreign nationals who travel here, as well as
monitor and control the pre-entry, entry, status and exit of these

The government deployed the program at 115
airports and 15 major seaports on Jan. 5, 2004. By the end of this
year, the 50 most important land ports of entry will be incorporated
into the program, including sites along the borders with Mexico and
Canada. By the end of 2005, all remaining ports of entry are supposed
to be integrated into the program.

Funding has been significant so far, with
$380 million spent in fiscal year 2003, $330 million having been
appropriated for fiscal 2004 and $340 million proposed—and likely to be
approved—for 2005.

Integrated into databases run by the Federal
Bureau of Investigation, the Immigration and Naturalization Service,
the State Department and local police, the project scans, collects and
uses “biometric” identifiers of visitors to the United States. This
includes an inkless fingerprinting system, which captures the index
fingers of each visitor, and a digital photograph of each visitor.

Data taken at the point of entry is then
compared to the databases of the Department of State, including travel
documents, arrival and departure information, advance passenger
information, border inspection and student exchange information.

“If a visitor refuses to provide fingerprints
or be photographed, he is generally not permitted to enter the
country,” according to the Electronic Privacy Information Center
(EPIC), a civil rights organization in Washington, DC.

By the same token, DHS claims that since the
program was first implemented in January, DHS and the State Department
have intercepted more than 500 people on a variety of grounds,
including convicted rapists, drug traffickers, people convicted of
credit card fraud, armed robbery and immigration violations, as well as
people using counterfeit documents, while over 4 million legal visitors
have swiftly entered the country without any significant delay.

The genesis of the program dates back to at
least 1996, with a reform of immigration laws. But the terrorist
atrocities and the USA PATRIOT Act of 2001 made it a reality.

Going forward, the goal now is not only to track the entry of visitors to the United States but their exit, as well.

The contract dispute

The government awarded Accenture the contract
on May 28, an occasion joyously celebrated by both the firm and
Undersecretary for Border and Transportation Policy Asa Hutchinson.

“This is a significant milestone in the
history of thedepartment, but also very significant for our efforts to
secure the borders of the United States,” said Hutchinson, who noted
that the award was made on time.

But members of Congress balked, noting that
Accenture’s parent company is based in Bermuda, thereby avoiding US
taxes. Reps. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) and Marion Berry (D-Ark.) sponsored
an amendment to the FY2005 DHS appropriations bill that would prohibit
contract awards to companies that incorporated overseas after Nov. 25,
2002, in an effort to avoid US taxes—what are known as “inverted”

After the provision was introduced in the
House Appropriations homeland security subcommittee, Accenture issued a
statement saying it had always been incorporated overseas—not just
after the deadline. Furthermore, “As a global company, Accenture pays,
and has always paid, our fair share of taxes in each of the countries
in which we generate income, including the United States. We pay US
taxes on income generated by our US operations, and we pay taxes on
non-US income in the countries in which that income is generated.”

Reps. Jim Moran (D-Va.) and Tom Davis
(R-Va.), with districts close to Accenture’s Reston location, vowed to
block the amendment. It was defeated by a vote of 221 to 182 on the
floor of the House on June 18.

As of this writing, the entire DHS budget is
in the Senate awaiting consideration and approval. Last year, a similar
provision against DHS contract awards to inverted companies was
introduced by Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.). It was defeated.

“There is no reason why Accenture should be
prohibited by law from this contract,” Jim McAvoy, Accenture’s
spokesman for the government sector, told HSToday. “Accenture is not an
inverted company and it has never been an inverted company.”

Other critics grumbled that a larger firm
like Lockheed-Martin, with systems engineering expertise, should have
been given the award, rather than Accenture, which is an information
technology consulting firm.

With the House vote resolved and the Senate
likely to go Accenture’s way, the company is already working on task
orders to bolster the program’s management capabilities, said Eric
Strange, Accenture’s managing partner for homeland security and defense

The team is working on business processes,
organizational structure and workforce management in order to ensure
that the program runs smoothly.

“DHS officials felt we had a clear
understanding of their vision for the future of border management and
that we did assemble a strong team with strong competencies, and they
liked our approach,” Strange told journalists.

“We’re currently at work putting in place subcontract agreements,” McAvoy confirmed.

Accenture’s team, dubbed the Smart Border
Alliance, includes key members Raytheon Co. of Lexington, Mass, The
Titan Corp. of San Diego, Calif., and SRA International Inc. of
Fairfax, Va. Other companies working on the project include Apogen
Technologies, Springfield, Va., which is developing the IT back end,
including networking solutions, and smart card developer BSI2000,
Lakewood, Colo., which is working with Excell Consulting of Denver to
insert its encrypted smart-card systems, which use artificial
intelligence, into the US-VISIT system.

The Accenture team won the award in
competition with teams led by Lockheed Martin of Bethesda, Md., and
Computer Sciences Corp. of El Segundo, Calif.

The privacy issue

From the outset, privacy advocates raised
concerns about the program, claiming that DHS did not conduct a review
to determine the impact that US-VISIT would have on human rights. These
concerns have not diminished since the program’s implementation.

Last December, Sen. Joseph Liebermann
(D-Conn.) openly criticized DHS for failing to complete a privacy
impact study, looking at the biometric aspects of the program.

Just a few days before it began using the
technologies at air and seaports, DHS then relented, releasing a report
stating that it had a privacy officer on staff “to ensure that the
privacy of all visitors is respected and to respond to individual
concerns about the collection of requested information.”

Twenty-nine civil-rights groups in
Washington, DC—including EPIC—later joined the fray, stating in a
letter to DHS that US-VISIT had “enormous potential for error, invasion
of privacy, and violation of international privacy laws and human
rights standards.”

Critics have pointed out that there are no
enforcement procedures enabling individuals to bring privacy complaints
under the current rules, meaning “innocent visitors” could be kept from
entering the United States, said EPIC.

In its fact sheet on US-VISIT, DHS states
that only authorized officials and law enforcement officers will have
access to the data collected. The program has its own privacy policy
and the members of the public can contact the DHS privacy officer with
any concerns they might have.

Economic impact

Another complaint about US-VISIT is that it will impede American trade and damage the economy.

Initially, the program was supposed to target
only travelers from problem countries, not travelers visiting from
allied nations or other lands that have friendly relations—and strong
trade ties—with the United States.

But that has changed. “Visitors from Canada
and Mexico are currently subject to US-VISIT if they enter the United
States through air or sea ports,” EPIC said in a statement.

Research by a coalition of business and
community groups called the Association of South Texas Communities
(ASTC), located in Austin, said the tracking program will have a
significant economic impact.

“If delays at land borders increase 20
percent, the US will lose more than $60 billion in total business
activity,” Evelyn Nazro, a spokeswoman for ASTC, told HSToday.
“If delays at borders increase 75 percent, the US will lose more than
$229 billion in total business activity. The economic study shows that
US-VISIT will virtually wipe out the economic stimulus provided by

More than 81 percent of all visitors to the
United States come through “major land ports,” said Nazro. Impeding the
flow of passengers into the US will have economic consequences broader
than the relatively small gains made by a few companies through these
IT contracts. “These delays will hamper the flow of goods and people,
and cost the US billions in lost economic activity,” said Nazro.

Beyond the economics, critics also complain
that US-VISIT simply doesn’t discriminate between legitimate travelers
and terrorists—its primary purpose.

“Practices that fail to properly distinguish
between terrorists and legitimate foreign travelers are ineffective
security tools that waste limited resources, damage the US economy,
alienate those groups whose cooperation the US government needs to
prevent terrorism and foster a false sense of security by promoting the
illusion that we are reducing the threat of terrorism,” said Prof.
Margaret Stack, an immigration lawyer who is on the faculty of the US
Military Academy at West Point.

Some of the technological solutions to halt
terrorism—increasing biometric identification of visitors—fail to rely
on the inherent skills of personnel in the field to cope with potential
problem visitors, critics charge.


In July US-VISIT got a powerful boost when
The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States
(the 9/11 Commission) issued its report and endorsed the program’s

Acknowledging the existing program, the
Commission recommended that: “The Department of Homeland Security,
properly supported by the Congress, should complete, as quickly as
possible, a biometric entry-exit screening system, including a single
system for speeding qualified travelers. It should be integrated with
the system that provides benefits to foreigners seeking to stay in the
United States. Linking biometric passports to good data systems and
decisionmaking is a fundamental goal… .

“Completion of the entry-exit system is a
major and expensive challenge. Biometrics have been introduced into an
antiquated computer environment. Replacement of these systems and
improved biometric systems will be required. Nonetheless, funding and
completing a biometrics-based entry-exit system is an essential
investment in our national security.”

“I see a very positive effect on US-VISIT” Hutchinson said of the 9/11 report in response to an HSToday
question at the GovSec trade show in Washington, DC on July 29. “It’s
one of the recognitions of the job we’ve done meeting the congressional

He told the audience: “The Commission Report
discussed this, said it needs to move forward and we agree completely
and we will move forward.”

As for the controversy over Accenture,
Hutchinson said that the award “met all of the legal requirements, it’s
an American company that employs 25,000 Americans and pays American

It seems unlikely that anything can stop
US-VISIT given the Commission’s blessing. Its importance to homeland
security probably ensures its steady continuation and robust funding,
certainly through FY2005 and beyond.

And hopefully, by the time the program is
fully implemented, Tom Hanks or some hapless traveler like him will
find his way out of the airport terminal, undeterred and unimpeded by

Gene J. Koprowski is writing a book for Berrett-Koehler Publishing ( on business innovation, due out next spring.

America’s 50 busiest land ports of entry (By 2002 crossings)

San Ysidro—San Diego, Calif.

Laredo-Lincoln—Juarez, Texas

Calexico, Calif.

Hidalgo, Texas

Paso Del Norte—El Paso, Texas

Otay Mesa—San Diego, Calif.

Laredo AF—Convent Street, Texas

Lewiston-Queenston Bridge, NY

Rainbow Bridge—Niagara Falls, NY

San Luis, Ariz.

Nogales East, Ariz.

Bridge of the Americas (BOTA) El Paso, Texas

Ysleta—El Paso, Texas

Douglas, Ariz.

Gateway—Brownsville, Texas

Calexico East -Imperial Valley, Calif.

Detroit Ambassador Bridge, Mich.

Peace Bridge—Buffalo, NY

Detroit Tunnel, Mich.

Pharr, Texas

Del Rio, Texas

B&M—Brownsville, Texas

Eagle Pass II, Texas

Port Huron—Blue Water Bridge, Mich.

Los Tomates—Brownsville, Texas

Progreso, Texas

Eagle Pass, Texas

Sault Ste. Marie, Mich.

Marisposa—Nogales West, Ariz.

Andrade, Calif.

Roma, Texas

Pacific Highway—Blaine, Wash.

Peace Arch—Blaine, Wash.

Champlain, NY

Los Indios, Texas

Tecate, Calif.

Rio Grande City, Texas

Massena, NY

Calais—Ferry Point, Maine

Alexandria Bay—Thousand Island, NY

International Falls, Minn.

Stanton Street Bridged Texas

Presidio, Texas

Sumas, Wash.

Laredo—Columbia, Texas

Lukeville, Ariz.

Derby Line, Vt.

Point Roberts, Wash.

Fabens, Texas

World Trade Bridge—Laredo IV, Texas

Source: DHS

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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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