DHS introduces visa overstay program, strengthens biometric technology

WASHINGTON — A new Department of Homeland Security program aims to find foreigners who overstay their visa and rank them for enforcement by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, according to published reports. Fierce Homeland Security reported that the One DHS Overstay Vetting Pilot program is intended to reduce misidentified overstays.

In 2011, DHS had a backlog of 1.6 million records of potential visa overstays, drawing criticism and prompting  DHS to allegedly screen and cut the number of records stored by more than half. By September, according to Fierce Homeland Security, DHS officials  released information to the House Homeland Security subcommittee, saying that DHS has screened the remainder of the records.

Using biometric identification and analysis services, the United States Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology  can “distinguish people who pose a threat from millions of people who travel for legitimate purposes,” according to  testimony by DHS Principal Deputy Coordinator for Counterterrorism John Cohen. “The program stores and analyzes biometric data – digital fingerprints and photographs – and links that data with biographic information to establish, and then verify, identities.” Every week, US-VISIT emails an encrypted list of overstay leads to Customs and Border Protection and Citizenship and Immigration Services. The records are checked against multiple databases and sent back to US-VISIT, which conducts manual searches on the remaining records. The list finally reaches the ICE and is uploaded to the LeadTrac system for the National Counterterrorism Center to verify.

DHS conducted a Privacy Impact Assessment to review how the data it is keeping on individuals is handled to ensure privacy for the individuals’ information. It reported that it “recognizes that the potential privacy impact of mishandling this data is high.” Because of this, a Privacy Compliance Review will be conducted on the program within one year of its execution and before the program is permanently implemented.

However, the American Civil Liberties Union called US-VISIT “another program that, despite years of work, remains functionally inoperative…The watch lists used by this program and others are full of errors and are missing the names of suspected terrorists.”

According to Cohen, the biometric technology should change all that by giving the government a better understanding of who remains in the nation. It provides interaction between US-VISIT, the FBI and the Department of Defense, “enriching our data sets by making information sharing more seamless and automating the biometric-checking process to make it far more efficient.”

“Clearly that is a fairly rapidly growing security space for us – both in the federal sector and in the commercial sector,” Andre Eaddy, director of cybersecurity portfolio solutions for Unisys, a security technology company, told the Washington Post. “We’re seeing interest worldwide.”

Saying the program will respect Americans’ basic rights, including privacy, Cohen concluded that the program is a step forward for the country to keep tabs on who enters and exits.

“As we continue to work to address today’s complex challenges, we will look for innovative ways to bride gaps in information, technology, and human decision-making,” Cohen said.

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