Border Security:

Security of New Passports and Visas Enhanced, but More Needs to Be Done to Prevent Their Fraudulent Use

GAO-07-1006: Published: Jul 31, 2007. Publicly Released: Jul 31, 2007.

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Travel documents are often used fraudulently in attempts to enter the United States. The integrity of U.S. passports and visas depends on the combination of well-designed security features and solid issuance and inspection processes. GAO was asked to examine (1) the features of U.S. passports and visas and how information on the features is shared; (2) the integrity of the issuance process for these documents; and (3) how these documents are inspected at U.S. ports of entry. We reviewed documents such as studies, alerts, and training materials. We met with officials from the Departments of State, Homeland Security, and Commerce's National Institute of Standards and Technology, and U.S. Government Printing Office, and with officials at seven passport offices, nine U.S. ports of entry, two U.S. consulates in Mexico, and two Border Crossing Card production facilities.

The Department of State (State) has developed passports and visas, including border crossing cards (BCC), that are more secure than older versions of these documents; however, older versions have been fraudulently used and remain more vulnerable to fraud during their lifespan. For example, earlier versions valid until 2011, of which there are more than 20 million in circulation, remain vulnerable to fraudulent alteration by such means as photo substitution. Although State has updated or changed the security features of its travel documents, State does not have a structured process to periodically reassess the effectiveness of the security features in its documents against evolving threats and to actively plan for new generations. State has taken a number of measures to ensure the security and quality of passports and visas, including establishing internal control standards and quality assurance measures, training of acceptance agents, and initiating new visa policies and procedures. However, additional measures are needed in the passport issuance process to minimize the risk of fraud. State lacks a program for oversight of the thousands of passport acceptance facilities that serve an important function in verifying the identity of millions of passport applicants each year. Officers in primary inspection--the first and most critical opportunity to identify fraudulent travel documents at U.S. ports of entry--are unable to take full advantage of the security features in passports and visas. These officers rely on both their observations of travelers and visual and manual examination of documents to detect fraudulent documents. However, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has not yet provided most ports of entry with the technology tools to read the new electronic passports and does not have a process in place for primary inspectors to utilize fingerprints collected for visas, including BCCs, at all land ports of entry. Moreover, DHS has provided little regular training to update its officers on the security features and fraud trends in passports and visas.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: The Secretaries of State and DHS should collaborate to provide CBP inspection officers with better training for the inspection of travel documents issued by the State department, to better utilize the security features. This training should include training materials that reflect changes to State-issued travel documents in advance of State's issuance of these documents, including the provision of exemplars of new versions of these documents in advance of issuance.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2008, the Department of State (State) provided the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) training materials on the security features of the U.S. Passport Card and the second generation border crossing cards (BCC) with examplars prior to their use by the traveling public. DHS has made these training materials and exemplars available to ports of entry for the purposes of training inspection officers. Specifically, in June 2008, prior to the issuance of the new U.S. Passport Card, State distributed to DHS the training materials on the security features of the Passport Card with exemplars of the card. In July 2008, DHS's U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) disseminated images of the U.S. Passport Card with information about its security features to ports of entry, and in August 2008, CBP distributed exemplars of the card to some ports of entry for training purposes. In addition, State provided DHS training materials and exemplars of second generation BBC in August 2008, prior to State's issuance of the new BCC in October 2008. In August 2008, CBP began to disseminate exemplars of the second generation BCC to ports of entry. According to CBP officials, all ports of entry had received exemplars of both the U.S. Passport Card and the second generation BCC by July 2010.

    Recommendation: To more fully utilize the security features of passports and visas, the Secretary of Homeland Security should develop a strategy for better utilizing the biometric features of BCCs in the inspection process to reduce the risk of imposter fraud.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DHS concurred with this recommendation. In response to the recommendation, in 2008 DHS issued a strategy to establish the U.S. Pedestrian Biometric Deployment project to deploy fingerprint scanners to pedestrian land border ports of entry to verify the identity of travelers holding a border crossing card (BCC) during the inspection process. Between March and May 2010, DHS' U.S. Customs and Border Protection deployed the fingerprint readers at all pedestrian lanes at ports of entry along the southwest border. If an inspecting officer has reason to suspect a traveler's identity, the officer has the capability of performing a one-to-one fingerprint verification against the individual originally issued the BCC.

    Recommendation: To more fully utilize the security features of passports and visas, the Secretary of Homeland Security should develop a deployment schedule for providing sufficient e-passport readers to U.S. ports of entry, which would enable inspection officials to better utilize the security features in the new U.S. e-passport.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In February 2011, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) purchased 4,400 e-passport readers that may be used to read e-passports and developed a schedule to deploy 3,838 readers for use at primary inspection at land, sea, and air ports of entry by April 2011. CBP determined the total number of e-passport readers required based on the results of a prior deployment of the 10-print fingerprint matching systems to ports of entry and input from ports of entry officials. The 40 ports of entry that process 90 percent of e-passsports will receive e-passport readers in the first phase of the deployment schedule. Other ports of entry will receive the readers in 4 subsequent phases. CBP plans to use the remaining e-passport readers to furnish additional ports of entry in the future and to deploy readers for use at secondary inspection.

    Recommendation: To improve the integrity of its travel documents, the Secretary of State should establish a comprehensive oversight program of passport acceptance facilities. In doing so, State should consider conducting performance audits of acceptance facilities, agents, and accepted applications and establishing an appropriate system of internal controls over the acceptance facilities.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In commenting on a draft of this report, State said it had recently developed an oversight plan and provided GAO a draft document that identified vulnerabilities in the program and outlined initiatives to improve oversight of the passport acceptance program. However, its implementation of this program was delayed because of personnel and other issues. Late in fiscal year 2008, State established the Acceptance Facility Oversight Program, which began operations in December 2009. The program provides oversight and guidance to all passport acceptance facilities to identify vulnerabilities and implement best practices in the passport acceptance program and further stipulates that all passport facilities be inspected every two years. Under this program, State developed a database for tracking and monitoring acceptance facilities' passport applications. State officials informed us that the database tracks the training of passport acceptance agents, and is used to monitor passport acceptance facilities' and agents' adherence to policies and procedures.

    Recommendation: To improve the integrity of its travel documents, the Secretary of State should develop a process and schedule for periodically reassessing the security features and planning the redesign of its travel documents.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In response to the recommendation, State instituted a formal mechanism to reassess changes to its travel documents. In fiscal year 2009, it modified its Memorandum of Understanding with the Government Printing Office to establish an interagency committee to review and approve travel document physical and electronic features, specifications, and redesigns. The committee meets monthly and discusses new threats and vulnerabilities to State-issued travel documents. In addition, State established a schedule to periodically reassess the security features in the designs of its travel documents at least once every five years.

    Recommendation: The Secretaries of State and DHS should collaborate to provide CBP inspection officers with better training for the inspection of travel documents issued by the State department, to better utilize the security features. This training should include training materials that reflect changes to State-issued travel documents in advance of State's issuance of these documents, including the provision of exemplars of new versions of these documents in advance of issuance.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2008, the Department of State (State) provided the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) training materials on the security features of the U.S. Passport Card and the second generation border crossing cards (BCC) with examplars prior to their use by the traveling public. DHS has made these training materials and exemplars available to ports of entry for the purposes of training inspection officers. Specifically, in June 2008, prior to the issuance of the new U.S. Passport Card, State distributed to DHS the training materials on the security features of the Passport Card with exemplars of the card. In July 2008, DHS's U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) disseminated images of the U.S. Passport Card with information about its security features to ports of entry, and in August 2008, CBP distributed exemplars of the card to some ports of entry for training purposes. In addition, State provided DHS training materials and exemplars of second generation BBC in August 2008, prior to State's issuance of the new BCC in October 2008. In August 2008, CBP began to disseminate exemplars of the second generation BCC to ports of entry. According to CBP officials, all ports of entry had received exemplars of both the U.S. Passport Card and the second generation BCC by July 2010.

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