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5 Challenges of Visa Application Intelligence for Customs and Border Protection Personnel

This article originally appeared in Homeland Security Today  –  by Don Hepburn, Fivecast Advisor

The process brings together embassies, immigration agencies, law enforcement organizations and the intelligence community.

A key objective of border protection is preventing people from entering the U.S. illegally, but that’s not the only test facing government and law enforcement personnel charged with maintaining security, countering terrorism, and combating transnational crime.

A subtler task, but equally important, is making sure people seeking to enter the country on a valid visa are honest and transparent. Is the traveler indeed who they say they are? Might that person have an unstated reason for visiting the U.S.? And how do those protecting the border determine which individuals should be given a closer look and, potentially, denied entry?

The need to facilitate travel for legitimate travelers adds another wrinkle to those complex questions. There’s a lot at stake regarding economic development. The Tourism Policy Council, an interagency committee chaired by the Commerce Department, is working toward a 5-year goal of attracting 90 million international visitors who are expected to spend $279 billion annually by 2027.

With that background in mind, the essential mission becomes weeding out people with ulterior motives and encouraging legitimate tourists and business travelers. It’s a balancing act that involves a layered process spanning numerous locales and agencies. For example, an official at a U.S. embassy or consulate stands at the front end of the traveler screening process when they receive an application for a visa. But in many cases, there could be a State Department official working behind the scenes who is assessing crucial intelligence for vetting that application. The same principle holds true at border crossings, where Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents make decisions on admitting travelers – once again with the backing of the specialized analysts at agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

This screening process and the people who make it work are two core components of national border protection. A third element, technology, supports both in various capacities. Non-traditional data sources, such as open-source intelligence (OSINT), can help vet travelers. Biometrics offer a pivotal identity verification method at consulates and border crossings. In addition, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) can automate and accelerate critical and time-sensitive validation chores.

People, process and technology can – and should – be brought to bear on these five challenges of visa intelligence gathering and analysis:

1. Risk Determination

Risk determination begins once a traveler’s visas application arrives at an embassy or consulate. There are two primary challenges related to risk determination. The first is that many visa applicants intending to come to the USA may be traveling here for the first time. They have never been processed and are ‘unknown entities’. The second is the need to uncover discrepancies between a visitor’s declared intention and a hidden agenda that may emerge. Visas come in a multitude of types – student, tourist, medical and investor visas, to name a few – and each reflects the applicant’s ostensible intent. The embassy or consulate is responsible for ensuring that stated intention is supported by appropriate documentation.

For example, a student visa applicant may need to provide financial data to show they can support themselves without seeking employment. A student visa application may require additional scrutiny if he or she is traveling from a high-risk country and plans to study a sensitive technology such as materials science. In that case, an officer can send the student’s documentation back to the U.S. for a security advisory opinion. Stateside, agencies such as DHS will make sure the individual isn’t associated with a high-risk country’s intelligence research program and doesn’t have a history of technology theft.

At the embassy, officers interview applicants, perhaps for 20 minutes or so, one or more times during the application validation task. The nature of risk determination changes at the border crossing, however. The process is much more time-compressed: CBP agents have about 30 to 60 seconds to determine whether to admit a traveler or refer him or her to secondary inspection.

Publicly accessible data from a person’s social platforms, commonly termed social-media intelligence (SOCMINT), could come into play here. This check could reveal travel plans that contradict the visa applicant’s supposed intentions. It could also reveal actions and activities that could pose a threat to the homeland. In general, officers protecting the border must have the ability to analyze and track social platforms, which have become powerful tools of communication and interaction between and amongst people. Checking into social connections can help agents build upon a visa applicant’s risk profile. But agents must have the technical capability to discover the groups, people, and organizations the traveler associates with and build out their connections.

Such a capability may pair social platform inquires with AI and ML technology. This combination lets officials find comments and options a traveler made on the open web or dark web, which is a critically important component of risk determination. The technical capability can also help target narrow subsets of prohibited travel – identifying undeclared intelligence officers who try to enter the U.S. posing as tourists or university researchers, for instance. Without it, the risk profile of the United States would be very different than what it is now.

2. Volume processing

Maintaining a steady flow of visitors through the system, from visa application to entry, is another consideration. Different visas, different types of travelers and different countries of origin are among the variables. Countries that participate in the visa waiver program, for example, let travelers complete an online form to expedite their journey, although a CBP agent still makes a determination at the border.

However, agents processing a visa application face a twofold challenge: the volume of people who need to be processed and the amount of background research that each case may require. The objective is to have the ability to quickly identify any variances or inconsistencies and then rely on the human aspect to decide if the data is indeed actionable before moving on to the next visa application.

This facet of border protection calls for a strategic intelligence and investigative process that is automated. This specialized capability will help agencies deal effectively with thousands of visa applications requiring specialized investigations, not only making volume flow seamless but also making sense of the amount of data that needs to be discovered and analyzed.

Without this process there would be a significant holdup in the visa application procedure with direct implications for business, trade, tourism, and the country’s reputation.

3. Identity validation

When consular officers examine a visa applicant’s documentation to confirm their intent – or discover an alternative agenda – they also, of course, validate their identities. This establishes that the person presenting identity documentation is indeed the person named in that documentation.

A traveler’s identity is revalidated at the border crossing. The task here is to make sure the person entering the country is the same person who appeared at the consulate. A few things could throw an agent off at this stage. For instance, a twin could try using a sibling’s passport to get into the country.

Officers at the consulate and border use various biometrics methods to support identity validation. Web intelligence, the collection and analysis of relevant data gleaned from the open web and dark web, augments biometric technology to help CBP officers confirm identities prior to travel visas being approved.

Threat actors and travelers with hidden agendas may drop clues regarding their plans on the dark web. Web intelligence can churn through vast amounts of data, link the traveler to an online persona, and zero in on the telling bits of information that can help officials validate a person’s true identity and intentions.

4. Trafficking of visa-enabled persons

Some human traffickers smuggle undocumented people into the U.S, but traffickers and their victims may also travel with visas. When that’s the case, social platform data can help validate relationships among people seeking visas to enter the country – the relationship between a minor and an adult, for example.

Some traffickers use particular sites that are hidden from the broader online community to share information, plan activities, buy services from people in their network, or even plan the trafficking of people. The ability to uncover hidden connections is therefore essential. That’s because human trafficking as a hidden intention may be hard to discern during a regular consulate interview. Agents would also need to find how traffickers and their networks communicate and determine if they can gain access to communication platforms then they can interrupt the trafficking process.

Uncovering trafficking as early in the process as possible can prevent people from becoming victims. Once men, woman or children are dispatched to various human trafficking networks they can be very hard to track, unless a particular network is already under investigation.

Other layers help mitigate the trafficking threat and contribute to the deterrence factor. Law enforcement agencies collaborate with embassies, where legal attachés focusing on human trafficking rings feed into the intelligence pool. Ideally, those specialists should be able to cross-reference, investigate and analyze a variety data types from trusted sources.

5. Dark web investigations

The dark web is a portion of the familiar World Wide Web that is not indexed by conventional search engines and only accessible through specialized browsers. This layer of the web functions as a marketplace for information and illicit products and services. Threat actors use the dark web to enable illegal immigration, so agencies protecting the border need to know what’s lurking there in order to combat it.

A dark web investigation can shed light on threat actors, how they are operating and what services they offer. The intelligence-gathering layer — DHS, FBI and CIA, among other organizations — typically takes the lead in probing the dark web. The goal is to collate a dataset large enough — and trustworthy enough — to yield actionable intelligence upon analysis.

But to do that, agents need the ability to quickly find the trail of dark web clues and connect the dots as part of a comprehensive investigation. Visa applicants with nefarious intentions may use the dark web to share information on how to exploit holes in the immigration system or find ways to circumvent the system entirely. Applicants may also use the dark web to communicate with their associates in threat actor networks. In addition, threat actors operating in a particular country may steal legitimate passports from the issuing government entity or printer and put them for sale on the dark web.

Intelligence analysts must be able to find such illicit goods and either recommend that a visa be denied or warn their border protection colleagues to be particularly wary of passports from the country in question. In general, border protection authorities must be able to tap the dark web for the biggest possible picture of a traveler, their social affiliations, and concealed activities. That type of data is difficult to obtain and demands a sophisticated, automated process to conduct investigations in a timely manner while connecting a visa applicant to their online activities.

But one caveat on automated data collection and analysis. To keep an investigation from bogging down, an organization should only conduct a deep data dive against the most likely threats. The greater the amount of data, the greater the number of human analysts are required to evaluate it. Resource-constrained agencies can’t afford to chase every scrap of data.

A balancing of methods

Border protection is a many-faceted process that brings together embassies, immigration agencies, law enforcement organizations and the intelligence community. The people enabling this process range from consular officers evaluating visa applications to CBP agents at the border to the intelligence specialists who advise them.

Technology bolsters the work of border security. Unconventional data sources, biometric identification and AI serve to reinforce the people and the process. Among the technology assets, AI and ML provide the benefit of fast thinking, rapidly detecting anomalies and flagging information that might otherwise remain concealed.

While border protection is balanced across many layers to ensure no single point of failure, technology must be balanced against the experience and knowledge of security practitioners. AI and ML can help detect threats, but smart technology still requires human eyes and human analysis to review the data – and make the ultimate call on approving or denying entry.

About the Author:

Don Hepburn is the U.S. intelligence advisor at Fivecast, a provider of digital intelligence solutions used by the national security, law enforcement, defense, corporate security, and financial intelligence sectors. During his distinguished career spanning almost 30 years, he worked at both the CIA and the FBI. Don has an M.A. degree in International Affairs from Columbia University. Contact him at

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