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CBP container inspection targeting system has 6.3 percent positive rate

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A Customs and Border Protection system that helps officials determine which maritime cargo containers to examine for threats or contraband has a positive identification score of just 6.3 percent, says the Government Accountability Office.

CBP is under a congressional mandate to inspect 100 percent of all maritime cargo containers bound for the United States, but Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano in May authorized a 2 year extension to the original July 2012 deadline.

As a result, CBP officials depend on a web-based application called the Automated Targeting System, as well as analysis of other information, to determine which containers to inspect. The ATS classification system works by weighting some information about a container heavier than other information, the GAO notes in a report (.pdf) dated Oct. 25 that wasn't posted online until Nov. 26.

A CBP analysis shows that the positive rate of high-risk assessments--containers assigned a high-risk score by ATS that actually contained a potential threat--was 6.3 percent between the summer of 2011 through spring 2012. That means that ATS assigned a low or medium risk score to 93.7 percent of shipments later shown to have carried a potential threat.

ATS's false positive rate during that period was 3.6 percent. Auditors resist characterizing either figure as high or low, however, since they say CBP didn't establish a target rate for either true or false positive rates.

They do, however, say that CBP updated in 2011 ATS methodology without proper analysis (or at least documentation of that analysis). CBP changed the set of weights ATS uses by choosing between two alternative methods that both updated the underlying data used in the methodology to incorporate newly required 10+2 data--that is, the 10 pieces of information maritime carriers must transmit to CBP 24 hours ahead of loading a container onto a ship, and the two other data elements it can send while underway.

CBP officials analyzed both possibilities by conducting an analysis of how each methodology would affect workload, but didn't conduct an analysis of their relative effectiveness.

"CBP's impact assessment does not address the balance between targeting accuracy and workload," auditors say. Auditors also note that the Homeland Security Department office of inspector general in January 2010 recommended that CBP ensure that each stage of developing ATS rules would be documented, and that CBP concurred with that recommendation. DHS GAO-OIG Liaison Office Director Jim Crumpacker, who generally speaks for the department when it comes to responding to official watchdog recommendations--but whose power to ensure those recommendations are actually undertaken is uncertain--likewise concurred with GAO recommendations made in this report.  

For more:
- download the report, GAO-13-9 (.pdf)

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