The U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security announced that the United States will begin deploying enhanced technology to expedite security checks and immigration processing of pre-screened, international travelers, saying  “These efforts demonstrate again that we can design border security initiatives to both enhance homeland security and facilitate global commerce and travel,” noting that “the success of the US-VISIT program, particularly in deploying biometrics technologies and processes has given us the confidence to move forward with voluntary expedited travel programs using biometrics.”

A new DHS initiative in 2008?  Well, yes and no.

The quotes above are actually from one of former Secretary Tom Ridge’s final announcements in January of 2005, when he announced that vetted travelers would be able to use biometrically-enhanced kiosks to confirm the identity of enrollees returning to the U.S.  Rolling out an initiative developed by a U.S. Customs and Border Protection anxious to facilitate the way low-risk travelers passed through its inspection process, Secretary Ridge and his policy team were hopeful that this initial pilot with the Dutch government would be the first step in a web of interoperable trusted traveler programs.

However, Secretary Ridge soon departed DHS and the new leadership placed the international registered traveler program on hold while it focused on a range of other significant international travel issues, such as moving US-VISIT to 10-fingerprint collection, strengthening the Visa Waiver Program, and broadening the use of passenger name record data for security reviews. CBP’s initiative also suffered from general unease within DHS about the domestic Registered Traveler program operated by private sector vendors and overseen by the Transportation Security Administration.

However, CBP continued to press the case for its risk management tool, private sector interests convinced Congress to reauthorize the program with authority to collect an enrollment fee in 2007, and DHS and the Department of State rolled out a series of facilitation programs under the Secure Borders and Open Doors framework initially announced in January of 2006.  Finally, DHS approved the CBP initiative earlier this year which was branded Global Entry and announced in April of this year.

Yesterday, CBP began accepting online applications – submitting mine took about 20 minutes and cost $100.  Assuming no problems with the background check, I will appear for an interview with a CBP officer and then be enrolled in the program.  Starting next month, upon arrival at a participating U.S. airport, enrollees will skip the processing line and confirm their identity by matching fingerprints against those provided during the application process and providing their passports; both forms of identification will be compared to applicable watchlists each day.

On its surface, the plan seems to align with the original vision behind the project. However, for Global Entry to fulfill its potential, it needs four critical enhancements;

1)      More locations – OMB has only approved pilot programs at three airports (JFK, Dulles, Houston), but the program needs to be expanded to include all airports with significant amount of international arrival traffic.  Congress appears willing to provide CBP with a one-time infusion of funds to purchase necessary enrollment and verification equipment before the program becomes self-funding.

2)      Convenient enrollment – Companies or other organizations able to bring a sizable number of enrollees to CBP should be able to request enrollment at their place of business.

3)      Coordination with domestic RT – Any individual who can pass the CBP Global Entry enrollment test should automatically be enrolled in the domestic RT program if they are willing to pay the marginal cost of participation.

4)      Foreign enrollees – DHS has understandably been cautious about offering enrollment to foreign visitors but has come up with the right formula to allow foreign guests to enroll if their host government has a robust law enforcement information-sharing regime with DHS and offers a similar program to U.S. travelers.

Particular credit goes to CBP program director John Wagner and his superiors at CBP’s Office of Field Operations and the DHS Office of Policy which finally green-lighted the program. I am looking forward to providing a first-hand report next month on the rest of the application process and program in action.