Appearing before Congress recently, a top Homeland Security official struggled to answer a simple question: How many foreign visitors to the United States overstay their visas every year?

After all, most Americans have had to deal with the arduous process of renewing their passport, waited through endless security checks, and have become used to providing two to three forms of ID every time they go to DMV or City Hall. But the very same government that requires its citizens to provide volumes of personal data for even the most routine transactions has no idea how many people allowed into the country remain here longer than planned?


The answer from Alan Bersin, assistant secretary for international affairs, was unsettling. After being grilled by lawmakers, he finally admitted that the administration doesn’t know because the “entire exit industry – exit from our country – from the time it was organized did not build in the notion that we would screen people on the way out.”

The exchange highlighted a critical technology gap in the existing U.S. security system. For all the advanced technology our country deploys to protect its borders and conduct security operations, there remains no process in place to match exits to entries. Without accurate data on when foreign visitors are both entering and leaving the country, it’s impossible to know who is staying beyond their visa return dates and whether those overstays should be cause for concern. The gap also raises serious national security questions and reinforces the need to move beyond debating border security and make real progress including understanding the frequency and motivations behind visa overstays.

A new report by the Department of Homeland Security has added urgency to the problem.  It found that nearly half a million people overstayed their visas last year alone. ISIS has even made it a centerpiece of its new strategy — creating a sophisticated “fake document industry” to help its foot soldiers slip in and out of the U.S. unnoticed. 

Industry and government security experts agree that gaps in tracking visa overstays coupled with the increasing sophistication of forged documents require that we use the most advanced and tamper proof systems available.  They also agree that no matter what that system looks like, it absolutely must rely on biometric authentication if it’s going to beat the forgers and instill confidence that people are who they claim to be.

A new, bipartisan chorus is raising the alarm about the potential for terrorists and other criminals to exploit gaps in the system because we do not routinely collect biometric information — fingerprints, iris scans and photographs that can be used for facial recognition — from people leaving the country.  Sen. Chuck SchumerChuck SchumerThe five biggest challenges facing President-elect Biden Collins urges voters to turn out in Georgia runoffs Protect America's houses of worship in year-end appropriations package MORE (N.Y.), the Democratic leader-in-waiting, is urging the government to hasten its move to a biometric system, saying recently that the “biometric exit system is still not off the ground and that is unfortunate, very unfortunate, because it is a matter of national security.” 

Improvements in identification cards and visas allow for the storage and protection of reams of private information, allow users access to financial or medical records, and – importantly – give government authorities the ability to determine a visitors identity and have confidence in the biometric information they’re relying on.

The 9/11 Commission recommended that the Department of Homeland Security complete a biometric system “as soon as possible.” For its part, all the government has to do is to catalyze this revolution. It also must engage more with private industry and put additional resources behind fully understanding the problem, because unless we know the full scope and truth about visa overstays, we’re effectively debating in darkness.

Daniel is a technology CEO and serial entrepreneur. Renner is head of DC operations for Abanacle and board member of the Secure Identity & Biometrics Association. Abanacle is focused on developing a range of security products, including a biometric smart card.