Overlooked in all the coverage of Faisal Shahzad’s dramatic arrest as his flight was about to depart Kennedy International Airport for Dubai is that his identification and capture was made possible because, contrary to popular perception, DHS has an operational air exit system.
DHS currently receives biographic exit data from all commercial and private aircraft operators. In recent years, the reliability of biographic air departure manifests and DHS’s ability to match biographic entry and exit records has greatly improved. Travelers are required to present identification documents when departing from the United States, and air carriers must transmit traveler information through the Advanced Passenger Information System (APIS). Compliance with both inbound and outbound APIS manifest submission requirements is nearly 100%. It was this manifest submission that triggered the hit on Shahzad’s name and led to his arrest.
While DHS has had significant success with biographic exit, there are a variety of laws that require the department to build a new system that uses biometrics—whether fingerprints, facial images, or other methods—to verify the identity and record the air departure of foreign travelers.
DHS has successfully implemented a biometric entry process, which does provide real security benefits. However, it doesn’t make sense to invest billions of dollars in a new biometric exit solution that offers minimal, if any, security improvement over the biographic data provided today. Instead, DHS should focus its efforts on supplementing the current system with biometric elements, building on technology and processes the department is already planning to deploy.