DHS biometric exit odyssey continues

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The seemingly interminable development of a biometric system to record departures from the United States may not even have a cost-benefit analysis ready before the fiscal 2016 budget cycle, the Government Accountability Office says.

A 1996 law required an automated system to track when foreign nationals exit the country, and in 2004, another law required a plan to accelerate the system's biometric entry and exit tracking. Nearly a decade later, designing the exit portion of the system, especially for airports, remains a formidable challenge to the Homeland Security Department.

A GAO report (.pdf) released July 30 says that the department plans to report to Congress about the costs and benefits of biometric air exit options before the fiscal 2016 budget cycle. But DHS's plan doesn't define the steps that will be needed to reach that point in time, the report says.

Without time frames and milestones, "DHS does not have reasonable assurance that it will meet its time frame for developing and implementing an evaluation framework," it says. An automated biometric entry-exit system would help DHS track visa overstays.

DHS has focused on airports because a biometric exit system on land facilities would be a major burden, auditors say. But airports have presented complications too. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said during a Senate hearing in April that airport exit lanes aren't suited for a system to record passengers' biometrics--"just a plain old architecture problem," as she put it.

Collecting biometrics could disrupt the flow of passengers through airport terminals, and DHS has faced challenges determining which personnel should actually be responsible for it in the airport.

In 2012, the department expressed concerns about the value and cost of a biometric exit system, especially compared with the current biographic exit process. DHS planned to address the report's concerns by May 2014, but auditors say the department doesn't expect to meet that goal.

For more:
- download the report, GAO-13-683 (.pdf)

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