CBP brings automated services to more than just travel elite

Tuesday - 2/5/2013, 4:23pm EST

Feb. 7, 2013 - Agency of the Month

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Self-service kiosks are everywhere these days — at subway stations, the grocery store, even your doctor's office. But up until now, U.S. Customs and Border Protection has only offered automated services for a select group of pre-enrolled passengers.

That's all about to change. As early as this spring, CBP will roll out a kiosk that everyone can use. Called automated passport control, the kiosks will process the general customs and declaration information that all travelers must complete. Right now, travelers must fill out a paper form before their flight lands, which is then processed by a CBP officer.

John Wagner, CBP (bio)

"It's getting rid of paper forms, so [passengers] don't have to fill them out on the plane, and spend 20 minutes looking for a pen," said John Wagner, CBP's executive director for Admissibility and Passenger Programs, on Federal News Radio's Agency of the Month. "Or they're halfway filled out when they arrive, and then we spend the officer time helping fill out the forms as the line starts backing up."

Most customs information is received electronically in advance, so the time and cost of processing and storing paper documents is no longer necessary for today's CBP.

"It's about getting ourselves out of the paper form business," Wagner said. "By doing this we're taking our CBP officer, we're…focusing on, really, the critical part of that inspection process of a traveler. And that's questioning them about the purpose and the intent of their travel, and looking at their behavioral characteristics as they respond."

CBP hopes to transform the inspection process with the kiosks, Wagner said. But for some local governments and federal agencies, the transformation may be coming too quickly.

Kiosks were also planned for the I-94 form, which all visa holders must fill out to enter the United States — about 25 percent of travelers. But in consulting with agency partners, CBP realized going paperless could be problematic.

"It's very important for other government agencies that rely on that form to do a lot of their critical work, like Citizenship and Immigration Services, the Social Security Administration, the Department of Motor Vehicles," Wagner said. "It's about working with them so they can adjust their operations; if we go to an automated format of this that they're able to continue to function."

CBP will resolve the issue by posting the form in a secured area online, so visa holders can download the form whenever they need it.

"It's really going to save us millions of dollars a year in data-entry costs, and really in officer efficiency and processing times," he said.

Building on past success

If this seems like uncharted territory for CBP, it shouldn't. The success of the Global Entry program has given the agency wind in its sails.

Global Entry is a clearance program for frequent, low-risk travelers.

Pre-approved applicants use a kiosk that scans their passport and fingerprints for expedited clearance.

In only a few years, the pilot has expanded to more than 40 major airports. It became permanent in March 2012, with further expansion planned.

In January, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced the expansion of Global Entry to Saudi Arabia.

"It addresses any type of security concerns and risk concerns we have through the process and the background checks we do," Wagner said. "It really allows us to start to reinvest those resources we would ordinarily spend on them."

The new pilot program? Smartphones

That reinvestment of resources includes a mobile device for CBP officers, allowing for database queries without having to go back to an office computer. It isn't just faster for the customer and cheaper for the agency — it's also safer for officers.

"When they encounter a traveler they can have their queries run right through a handheld device right there, and get any types of warrants, enforcement records while the traveler is there with them, in real time," Wagner said.

Kiosks are also planned for those traveling without checked baggage, like airline workers, and travelers with tight connections.