Passenger tracking agreement reached with E.U.

Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge Friday signed an agreement with European Union (E.U.) officials that will allow U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents to collect the names of airline passengers on flights between the U.S. and the E.U.

Customs and border patrol agents will receive the data from air carriers’ reservation and departure control systems, and then strip and delete all sensitive or private information as determined by the agreement. The deal, which runs for three years, will be subject to negotiations for renewal in 2007.

Friday’s signing comes as the DHS is expected to award a 10-year IT contract worth as much as US$15 billion to track the comings and goings of foreign visitors to the U.S. Known as the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology (US-VISIT) program, the nationwide system would collect and track biometric information on 300 million foreigners who travel to the U.S. each year. The DHS completed an initial deployment of that system at 115 airports and 14 seaports in January.

However, even as the agency prepares to issue what would be its largest IT contract to date, there are new concerns about both the management of the program and its technical feasibility.

In a report released on May 11 by the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, auditors concluded that the DHS had not yet put in place sufficient management controls, including testing and resource plans, for the next major deployment phase of US-VISIT.

There are also challenges facing 27 visa-waiver countries, which must issue biometric-enabled passports by Oct. 26, according to Richard Norton, executive vice president of the National Biometric Security Project. Visitors from countries in that visa-waiver program are allowed to travel to the U.S. without visas.

“The technical problems are immense,” said Norton. He was referring to efforts needed to prevent passport data from being accessed or manipulated.

Other potential problems stem from a lack of technology standards for biometrics, Norton said. “Aside from the lack of (independent) metrics on how biometrics actually perform, lack of standards is the biggest barrier (to widespread adoption),” he said. Norton made the comments during a speech yesterday in Arlington, Va.

DHS officials also said they are concerned that the lack of standards could make it impossible for the U.S. to install biometric readers capable of supporting all 27 visa-waiver countries if those nations each choose different technologies.

Last week, House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) introduced legislation that would extend for one year the deadline by which countries in the Visa waiver program must include biometric features in their passports. The move came several weeks after Secretary of State Colin Powell and Ridge urged an extension.

Lawmakers are expected to vote on the legislation in June.

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