With a new Administration, a mandate to protect US borders and economic prosperity during COVID – and a budget of approximately $18B (roughly 2X the budget for US TSA) – this is a big question.
Who better to answer it than the team at CT Strategies? The firm was co-founded by Andrew Farrelly, who served as Director of Targeting Programs for CBP’s National Targeting Center. I talked with Farrelly and his colleagues Zach Hartnett and Shawn Beddows to discuss CBP’s budget challenges, COVID, e-commerce, and what that means for CBP’s technology priorities. There’s a lot of insight here … read on.
HST: We’re at the start of the Biden Administration and a new Congress. What are the key issues CBP is facing that could impact its use of technology in 2021?
AF: That is a big question. Keep in mind whatever political drivers are applied to the agency from above — think new Biden Administration– people and cargo keep “showing up” at the border — and CBP has to deal with them.
HST: There are challenges that never change, regardless of who is in the White House.
AF: Right. One issue that has always faced CBP – and is more critical now is the need for more advanced information on what shows up every day. Whether you are talking about a border security system, or NII (non-intrusive inspection) technology, or biometrics, that CBP “ask” is the same.
HST: We’ll come back to that, but sticking with THE crisis of 2020: COVID-19. How will it affect CBP in 2021?
AF: One impact is economic. CBP relies on customs and immigration user fees to fund its budget and field officer positions. Those fees were way down in 2020, due to COVID-19, and while the new stimulus package provides some relief, the shortfall weighs on everything CBP will do in 2021.
SB: Here’s one impact many people aren’t aware of. Pre-COVID, the C-TPAT [Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism] program requires CBP officers to conduct onsite, physical verification of international exporters. With COVID, that onsite verification has been largely impossible.
ZH: COVID has accelerated the challenge e-commerce presents to CBP. Before COVID, e-commerce was growing but now it’s exploding and shows no sign of slowing down.
HST: How is e-commerce a challenge to CBP?
SB: Because now everyone can be an exporter and an importer – which makes vetting suppliers to prevent things like counterfeit medicines from entering the U.S. much more difficult.
AF: But here’s the somewhat counterintuitive thing for innovators: COVID and CBP’s fee shortfalls are making the need for better technology much more urgent.
HST: Because it’s the only way CBP can do more with less?
ZH: Exactly. Take NII Systems which CBP uses to screen rail, trucks, passenger vehicles, and sea containers. CBP currently screens about 15% of all trucks, 1% of all cars, and 2% of sea containers. CBP knows it has to increase those percentages dramatically – but without bringing cross border trade to a standstill.
HST: What kind of innovations is CBP looking at?
ZH: If you screen more with NII, you overwhelm CBP officers with images. So CBP is looking at two areas: automated threat recognition using AI, and some type of networking of systems, for remote analysis of images.
HST: How does biometrics fit into CBP’s priorities for 2021?
SB: It’s a huge part of their “lane of the future” initiative and making travel processes touchless. Expect a continued push to roll out biometrics at US airports in 2021.
HST: Last question. You know CBP well. What do they need to improve on in 2021 as an organization?
ZH: A recurring message from technology firms is that CBP’s acquisition process is grindingly slow. The complaint is even when money is budgeted and appropriated to spend on technology, it takes forever to get it obligated.
HST: Sounds like a good challenge for the next CBP commissioner to take on. Gentlemen, thanks for your insights.