President Donald Trump’s controversial travel ban called for, among other things, the speedy completion of a “biometric entry-exit tracking system” for all travelers to the United States.
If this sounds familiar, it’s because the idea has been debated in Washington for more than a decade. The implementation of such a system was one of the recommendations from the sprawling document known as the 9/11 Report, published 13 years ago by the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States.
In fact, members of Congress mandated the creation of an enhanced entry-exit database before the attacks of 2001, as part of immigration reform in 1996. After the September 11 attacks, Congress set a 2006 deadline for the implementation the system, and specified that agencies government-wide—not just “scattered units at Homeland Security and the State Department”— should be able to access it. When the federal government missed that deadline, Congress issued a new target for 2009.
Eight years later, it still hasn’t happened. There are several obstacles to creating the kind of system that officials in Washington have demanded. The accuracy of biometric identification systems and the cost of building such a system in the first place—plus government-wide computer upgrades that would be required to support its use—are all major considerations. Plus, airlines have so far refused to follow government rules that say they should collect and process biometric data from passengers leaving the United States.