US-VISIT Delays Foreign Airlines

Foreign visitors at the San Francisco airport wait in line to be fingerprinted and photographed, as dictated by the US-VISIT program. Recently, the system has mistakenly flagged foreign flight-crew members at checkpoints.
Foreign visitors at the San Francisco airport wait in line to be fingerprinted and photographed, as dictated by the US-VISIT program. Recently, the system has mistakenly flagged foreign flight-crew members at checkpoints. (By Marcio Jose Sanchez -- Associated Press)
By Sara Kehaulani Goo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 22, 2005

A new air-security system designed to track foreign visitors arriving in the United States has mistakenly snagged dozens of crew members of foreign airlines, according to new documents obtained from the Department of Homeland Security.

The manager of an unidentified foreign carrier complained that 35 employees were stopped for 30 minutes to an hour after arriving in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Honolulu, New York, Anchorage and Guam. Another airline said eight crew members had been questioned in Miami, Newark, New York's John F. Kennedy and Los Angeles airports. In each case, carriers indicated that the new program called US-VISIT, which captures digital fingerprints and photographs of all foreigners entering the country, was unable to properly identify the crew members who already have had U.S. background checks.

"So far thirty five crew members of [redacted airline] experienced problems with biometrics identification at the checkpoints" in the United States, said one e-mail written to Homeland Security's privacy office that receives the complaints. "Thirty two of them encountered finger print scanning problems," one had a digital photo glitch and two appeared to have stolen passport numbers, the e-mail said.

US-VISIT was criticized by foreign governments when it was introduced in 2004. Officials in some countries, such as Brazil, complained that it made visitors feel like criminals, and Brazil retaliated by photographing and fingerprinting visitors from the United States.

U.S. Homeland Security officials said the program has received complaints from 150 people in 18 months of operation, including at least 59 foreign airline crew members. About half of the complaints were the result of false watch-list matches, many of which included the crew members.

"We are unaware of any widespread complaints related to crew processing concerns," said Homeland Security spokesman Brian Roehrkasse. "Because crews have their own lanes [at immigration and customs], oftentimes they move through more expeditiously than other travelers."

Roehrkasse said the number of foreign airline-crew complaints was small, given that 6,000 foreign crew members arrive in the country every day.

Foreign flight-crew members undergo background checks conducted by the Transportation Security Administration at least an hour before their flights depart for the United States. But Homeland Security officials said the pre-flight check does not include the immigration watch list used by US-VISIT.

In e-mails to the airlines, Homeland Security officials explain the hassles occur for a variety of reasons. In some cases, crew members' names are similar to those on a watch list known as the Interagency Border Inspection System that contains names of people suspected of immigration law violations. In other cases, crew members appear to have passport numbers identical to documents that have been reported stolen.

In one e-mail, a Homeland Security official explained that the problem with the watch-list matches is caused by a simple name-matching software called Soundex, which assigns each name a code based on its phonetics and then matches the codes. "Since IBIS operates on soundex selection criteria, a tentative match is produced when the name is queried in the system, and this results in some travelers being referred to secondary inspection upon each arrival to the United States," a US-VISIT official wrote to an unidentified airline. "This is what happened with many of your crew members."

Marcia Hofmann, director of the Open Government Project at the Electronic Privacy Information Center who requested the documents from Homeland Security, said the e-mails reveal how the US-VISIT system suffers from the same shortfalls as other airline security programs that rely on name-matching to find suspected terrorists.

"Generically, it shows watch lists do have problems and it isn't just the no-fly and selectee lists that we're familiar hearing about that have inaccuracies," Hofmann said. "Perhaps there ought to be a unified effort to ensure all watch lists are maintained with accuracy."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company