Biometrics exit screening pilot at Houston airport catches two criminal defendants

December 3, 2015 - 

The Customs and Border Protection is currently piloting a biometric exit screening program at Houston Bush Intercontinental Airport to better monitor foreign visitors, and in the process, has already managed to catch two criminal defendants attempting to flee the country, according to a report by Houston Chronicle.

For the past two months, the CBP pilot program has scanned the fingerprints and travel documents of all non-U.S. citizens prior to boarding an outbound international flight.

The pilot program is designed to better track visitors as they enter and leave the U.S. as well as to prevent people with active arrest warrants from leaving the country. Additionally, the program identifies those individuals who left the country and who overstayed their welcome.

After several previous pilots and more than 10 years since Congress mandated a comprehensive entry and exit system following the 9/11 attacks based on an independent 9-11 Commission’s report, the biometric program has yet to be fully implemented.

“Two administrations now have been derelict in their duty to move forward to a visa tracking system like this,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies.

The CBP is currently operating the $5.4 million biometric exit pilot project at Bush Intercontinental and nine other U.S. airports, in which customs officers situated at the international boarding gates scan non-citizens’ fingerprints and swipe their travel documents.

The biometrics exit program compares data provided by airlines, including the traveler’s full name, gender, and country where the passport was issued, with law enforcement databases at the federal, state and local levels.

Under the program, the information of visitors are checked against the Terrorist Watchlist, which CBP said is already being checked for all international flights.

Experts cite a number of factors that accounted in the program’s delayed implementation, including that the biometric technology was not available back in 2004, the expensive upfront costs of launching a nationwide rollout, and as Krikorian argues, a lack of political will.

CBP currently monitors visitors through biographic information, including their name, birthday and passport number. However, small errors such as an airline misspelling a passenger’s name, can greatly impact the results of this method.

“Biographic exit tracking is better than no exit tracking, but biometrics is what we actually need,” Krikorian said.

Once the biometric exit screening pilot at Bush Intercontinental is completed, the CBP will assess the program to see if it was successful, if it has the proper manpower to operate it, and if it was accepted by airlines and travelers.

Bush Intercontinental is using six biometric devices that are connected to a Samsung Galaxy S5. Additionally, customs officers are using them to scan some but not all non-U.S. citizens, on about two flights a day.

Previously reported, the Custom and Border Protection’s Entry/Exit Transformation (EXT) Office are piloting several programs to make the process of collecting biometrics data from foreign traveler entering and leaving the United States less invasive.

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About Justin Lee

Justin Lee has been a contributor with Biometric Update since 2014. Previously, he was a staff writer for web hosting magazine and website, theWHIR. For more than a decade, Justin has written for various publications on issues relating to technology, arts and culture, and entertainment. Follow him on Twitter @BiometricJustin.