Governmentintroduces new border tracking system

Published on Thu, Aug 11, 2005 by ack Kintner

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Government introduces new border tracking system

By Jack Kintner

Testing a system that identifies foreign visitors electronically began at both Blaine border crossings last week, but officials say that even seasoned travelers will notice little, if any, change in the process during the nine month testing period.

Travelers who require a visa before entering the country are now issued a form, known as an I-94, that they carry with them while in the U.S. and surrender when they leave.

Most Canadian citizens do not require a visa, though those that do will come under this program. Examples are Canadian citizens who wish to work in the U.S. or start a business, or those who become engaged to marry an American.

Using technology similar to that now in use in the NEXUS lanes, officials are testing the practicality of I-94 forms that have an embedded radio tag that automates the gathering of information that border inspectors must now do manually.

One reason this approach is being developed is to speed up border crossing in general, according to Robert Mocny, deputy director of the U.S. Visitor and Immigration Status Indicator Technology (US-VISIT) program.

“Efforts at facilitating border crossing began well before 911,” Mocny said, “and now, since 911, we still want to have security but not at any price. We need the border to work right, and that means speeding up legitimate traffic as much as we can while still excluding those people we do not want to admit into this country.”

He said that one way to do this is to electronically automate the collecting of information, though the current test is simply a practical assessment of the technology and does not address other issues. “The first question is whether or not we can read the cards as they go past our antennae,” Mocny said, “that is, can we do this? Did we get the read?”

If the initial test is successful – if the tags are read accurately and lead to the correct information – then next spring border inspectors will begin using it to identify travelers in the next phase of the test period.

Using radio tagged cards is itself a second phase development of the US-VISIT screening program, which began collecting so-called biometric information last year. Two fingerprints and a digital photo were collected from all travelers using visas at 115 airports, 15 seaports and 50 of the busiest land crossings.

“Blaine’s busy enough to have easily qualified,” Mocny said, “and it’s a great test site for us because of the variety of traffic, with commercial trucks, tourists and locals all mixed in together.”

Travelers who use visas are now issued an I-94”form that they are to carry with them while in the country and surrender when they leave. The modified form, called an “I-94A,” has a small embedded radio tag that can be read by antennae mounted near U.S. entry and exit points.
The tag contains no information except a number that refers Customs and Border Protection (CBP) computers to the holder’s biometric information that was collected on the initial visit and stored in the CPB database.

Customs and Border Protection inspectors have already seen the process speed up in its first week. Kevin Ramsey, who was part of the media demonstration, said “before this, to issue an I-94 I had to manually enter the person’s name, and then check a few different data bases, and then wait. Now, once they have the card, all that information plus a photo ID pops up on my screen, much like NEXUS. I’d say it cuts the time at least in half if not more for each person.”

Ramsey demonstrated an initial visit for a foreigner requiring a visa using another CBP volunteer posing as a visitor. Collecting all the information and filling out the form took about five minutes, including photo and fingerprints.

“The next time she crosses either direction, the system will note that,” Mocny said, “even at highway speeds. It’s supposedly capable of reading 55 tags at once, which is a full busload of people.”

Congress has mandated that everyone crossing the border must use some kind of radio tagged document, probably a passport or its equivalent (such as a wallet-sized birth certificate), by January of 2008.

Mocny said that ideally this will prove to be a real break-through in facilitating cross-border traffic. “It would be nice to have that border be as transparent as possible for legitimate travelers but still effectively provide the new levels of security we now require,” Mocny said.