Government Documents Reveal Information about the Development of the CBP One App

Tuesday, February 28, 2023
Last modified: 
February 28, 2023
Records Show Consistent Lack of Transparency Around CBP One as CBP Expands its Use

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On October 28, 2020, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) launched a mobile device application called CBP One. In January 2023, the Biden administration announced that it would expand the use of CBP One.

CBP One is now used by migrants in the following situations:

  • Migrants seeking to schedule appointments to obtain exemptions at ports of entry from Title 42 – the health law used by the government to expel asylum seekers based on the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans, and Venezuelans can use CBP One from their home countries to submit biometric information to CBP as part of the process to apply for travel authorization and obtain parole through special programs for those nationalities.

The use of CBP One for these purposes has raised concerns about gaining access to asylum—a legal right—through a smartphone app; about whether this app is technically capable of handling such an important task; and about the app’s privacy implications. CBP also has indicated CBP One will be the primary method for migrants seeking asylum to enter the country after the government lifts restrictions Title 42 restrictions.

In July 2021, the American Immigration Council requested information from CBP to inform the public about the app, its uses, and the technologies’ inherent flaws. The Council sued CBP pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in December 2021 to obtain these records.

Documents obtained from the ensuing litigation show that, so far, the federal government has strongly pushed for using CBP One to manage the border without much consideration of the app’s inherent flaws or the need for transparency with regards to the app’s functions. The agency’s rapid implementation of some CBP One functions created confusion even among government officials. It promised government watchdogs that some features would be optional – namely, the submission of a photo – only to later make them mandatory. As CBP’s use of the app has expanded, certain flaws have become apparent, including problems with the app’s photograph capturing function (especially with photo submissions of asylum-seekers with darker skin color) and GPS location capabilities. The documents obtained thus far fail to show whether or not CBP considered these flaws before forcing asylum-seekers to use an app that could fail them.

CBP created an informational webpage about CBP One that has failed to keep up with the app’s expansion. The webpage provides web links where users can download the app when the website is accessed via a mobile device. This webpage, however, provides limited information about CBP One’s functions and what will be required of travelers who wish to use it. The webpage links to the latest version of the Privacy Impact Assessment (PIA) published by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The PIA is a dense government document that agencies are required to publish describing potential privacy issues for all new or substantially changed technology that collects, uses, disseminates, or maintains personally identifiable information, and how the agency plans to mitigate these issues. The CBP One PIA contains more details about the app’s functions, but it too has often lagged behind changes to the app’s use.

Even though the Council’s FOIA request asked for information about CBP’s plans for CBP One’s future uses, the agency has shared only limited information about the app’s planned expansion.

CBP One’s Origins

In August 2018, CBP’s Planning Program Analysis and Evaluation Directorate formally launched the development of CBP One to bring together services provided by different CBP mobile apps. According to an August 14, 2018 memorandum, CBP’s Office of Field Operations (OFO) funded the app and developed it with the help of the agency’s Office of Information Technology.

When CBP announced the official launch of CBP One on October 20, 2020, the OFO issued a memo highlighting limited “capabilities,” namely the ability to apply for Form I-94 – which provides travelers’ arrival records issued to those admitted into the United States and includes travelers’ anticipated departure date – and make appointments scheduling for inspection of perishable cargo. The agency did not include processing of asylum-seekers among either the initial or anticipated future uses of the app.

The rollout of CBP One will be a phased approach with the initial capabilities limited to the I-94 Apply and a Scheduling/Appointment feature for brokers to schedule perishable exams.

Subsequent rollouts will include incorporate I-94 Exit, CBP ROAM along with the ability to apply for and update cruising licenses. the ability to apply for and check Global Entry status, and the upcoming CBP version of Mobile Passport Control.

CBP One Expands

CBP One was not created for purposes of data collection. A Capability Roadmap for CBP One from October 2020 shows CBP’s plans for the app, which did not include plans to use the app for processing individuals at ports of entry.


However, a few months later, it was being used for just that.

On February 19, 2021, DHS published the first PIA for CBP One. The PIA included a description of how the app would be used to help process individuals enrolled in the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP).  

MPP, also known as “Remain in Mexico,” was a program instituted by the Trump administration in 2019 that forced certain individuals seeking asylum in the United States to wait in Mexico for the duration of their immigration proceedings. As the Biden administration ended MPP, it relied on international non-governmental organizations’ (NGOs) staff members to bring asylum-seekers back into the U.S. while their cases continued. CBP One could be used to verify that immigrants seeking to reenter the U.S. actually had ongoing cases under MPP.

The FOIA documents show that CBP had already been planning to use CBP One in the MPP wind down prior to announcing it to the public in the PIA. The first reference in the FOIA documents to CBP One’s role in processing individuals is a presentation about MPP dated February 9, 2021. The presentation provides instructions to international NGOs’ staff tasked with checking whether or not individuals were enrolled in MPP.

In notes from a meeting hosted by OFO and other agency components on February 12, 2021 providing an overview of CBP One’s MPP application, CBP admitted the app “was not initially designed for this particular process,” and that expansion could take time.

  • CBP's technology division continues to pursue opportunities for data batching and CBP One IO application will continue to trasnform and expand capabilities.
    • The expansion will take a while longer as CBP One was not initially designed for this particular process, but OFO is confident it can be accomplished.

Notes from that meeting also say that CBP One’s capability to identify people enrolled in MPP was already operational and that the agency uses “facial recognition technology” as the interactive platform for international organizations to work with the active MPP population.


The following month, CBP further expanded the use of CBP One in border processing by using it for individuals seeking exemptions from the Title 42 policy to seek asylum at ports of entry. The exemption process, like the MPP wind-down, relied on NGO staff, who used CBP One to enter information on behalf of individuals seeking exemptions and schedule appointments at ports of entry for processing.

CBP published a document describing this function on April 29, 2021. This document also shows that this new function would allow NGO staff to make appointments at ports of entry on behalf of immigrants applying for Title 42 exemptions. A CBP status report about the app confirms that CBP One’s function allowing for the submission of information in advance became operational in March, while the scheduling feature became available in June.


At this point, CBP was apparently collecting this information before it applied for approval from the Office of Management and Budget to do so. Though CBP One allowed users to seek exemptions to Title 42 in March 2021, it wasn’t until May that the agency asked the Office of Management and Budget for emergency approval to collect personal information from people coming to the border.

The same month, DHS publicly acknowledged it was changing the app’s function in an update to the CBP One PIA on May 7. The statement in support of the OMB request did not specify whether the biographic information to be submitted in advance would be collected by intermediaries -- like the NGOs that CBP was using at the time for MPP wind-down and Title 42 exemptions -- or directly from individuals. This ambiguity is important because agency documents such as the June Status Report show that CBP planned to phase-out the advance submission of information by NGOs as early as June 2021, and shift to collecting information from migrants themselves.

An August 2021 CBP One Status Report shows that the agency put on hold its implementation of the direct submission of advance information by individuals seeking processing at ports of entry.

As of January 2023, however, CBP informed the public that the app would be available for individuals to submit their own information in advance and schedule appointments at ports of entry. The agency is pushing individuals to use CBP One for this purpose and has not provided any information about alternatives methods for applying for Title 42 exemptions for people who may not be able to access the app.

With restrictions under Title 42 potentially set to expire on May 11, the Biden administration has proposed a regulation that would expand the use of CBP One to process individuals seeking access to southwestern border ports of entry after Title 42 restrictions expire. The regulation, if adopted, would restrict asylum to those who arrived unannounced at a port of entry and have been denied asylum in those countries through which they traveled. This restriction, however, would not apply to people who reach Mexico and are able to access CBP One to make an appointment for processing at ports of entry.

While documents obtained through the Council’s FOIA request show that CBP informed NGOs about CBP One’s capabilities to enter information and schedule appointments for travelers seeking Title 42 exemptions, the same cannot be said about the agency’s push to shift this function from NGOs’ staff to travelers themselves. As shown above, CBP prepared presentations showing screen shots from the app instructing NGO staff how to navigate the app. CBP failed to make these detailed presentations available to the public and potential users, instead waiting until the functions became available in January 2023 to publish limited factsheets on how the app is supposed to work.

CBP Has Failed to Inform the Public about CBP One’s Photo Submission Requirements

CBP has not been transparent about CBP One’s expanded photo submission requirements and about its methods for facial recognition, which the agency refers to in its own records both as “facial recognition technology” and “facial comparison technology.” In addition, CBP has failed to inform users about potential issues that may arise when users submit photos via CBP One, and whether or not there are viable alternatives for those who would rather not use it.

The DHS PIA explains how CBP One collects photos from users:

  • Applicants seeking appointments at southwest border ports of entry submit a selfie with the app so the agency may ensure the submission is being made by a “live person.” These photos are stored in a “gallery” within the Traveler Verification Service (TVS) system, which is CBP’s matching service for “all biometric entry and exit operations that use facial recognition technology.” During the inspection appointment at the port of entry, a CBP officer will take a new photograph of the applicant to “match” the new photo with the selfie the applicant submitted through CBP One.
  • Applicants seeking advance travel authorization for the CHNV programs also submit a selfie with the app to conduct a liveness check. CBP uses the selfie to compare it to applicants’ passport photos and to compare it to other photos accessible by the agency to vet the applicant for law enforcement and national security purposes. The PIA describes the selfies’ uses as follows: CBP uses the selfie image for five distinct purposes: (1) to conduct one-to-one (1:1) facial comparison against the passport photograph previously uploaded to the ATA mobile application from the eChip; (2) to conduct one-to-many (1:n) vetting against derogatory photographic holdings for law enforcement and national security concerns as part of the ATA vetting process; (3) to generate a new gallery of ATA participants for facial comparison when ATA participants arrive at a port of entry; (4) to conduct 1:n identity verification once the participants arrive at the port of entry; and (5) to conduct 1:n vetting against known derogatory photographs for assistance in CBP’s admissibility determination.

Submission of photos, however, was not always required and has expanded throughout the app’s evolution with limited notice to users.  

For example, the April 29, 2021 document describing the function allowing users to submit information to obtain Title 42 exemptions prior to arrival at ports of entry shows that photo submission was “Optional.”


The photograph submission later became a requirement. DHS’ most recent version of the PIA states users “must complete liveness detection through their device’s camera prior to scheduling a presentation at a [port of entry].”

CBP’s lack of clarity regarding CBP One’s photo submission requirements and its potential to exclude people from processing at ports of entry raised questions during the agency’s application for emergency approval from OMB. In an email exchange on July 19, 2021, OMB officials asked CBP whether users would be required to submit photographs via CBP One. At the time of this email, CBP was already requesting photograph submissions from users as part of the collection of information in advance of arrival at ports of entry. In response, the Economic Impact Analysis Branch Chief stated that the photo “was the most efficient source of identification,” but acknowledged that CBP One is a “voluntary program” that “might not be feasible for all individuals,” and that NGOs might still need to help people to submit their information. The Chief said that “If someone can not [sic] provide a photo, they can still present themselves to the POE directly,” an option that has become virtually impossible given how the agency implements restrictions under Title 42.


Likewise, photos became a requirement for users who wanted to obtain their I-94 information through CBP One. Initially, users could access this information by entering their biographical information into the app rather than submitting a photograph.


By the time DHS published the latest version of the PIA, it explained that this function “requires users to submit photographs of themselves and co-travelers.” To date, CBP does not explain the photo submission requirement for this function on the CBP One webpage, nor does DHS mention this requirement in the Appendix to the PIA with information about the app’s I-94 capabilities.

Similarly, CBP expanded the photo submission requirement for “liveness” checks for applicants using the app to access the new humanitarian parole programs. The Venezuelan parole program launched on October 2022 required people seeking advance travel authorization (ATA) to fly into the United States to submit their biographic information, including a photo of themselves taken with their phone’s camera, via CBP One. DHS expanded this parole program to people from Cuba, Haiti, and Nicaragua in January 2023.

Because DHS requires applicants for these parole programs to submit their information via CBP One, applicants have no choice but to comply with the app’s photo requirements. A description of this requirement is not available on the CBP One webpage and can only be found by parsing through DHS PIA on the ATA program.

All of these examples illustrate CBP’s rapid shift from making photo submission optional to requiring photograph submissions.

Predictably, reports have surfaced that people of color trying to apply for Title 42 exemptions, particularly Haitian nationals, are having issues with submission of their photo. If Haitian nationals are having this problem, it is likely that individuals in Haiti also will be rejected when trying to apply for the advance travel authorization necessary for the new humanitarian parole program. If this issue becomes the norm, it will continue to shut people out of the process for obtaining Title 42 exemptions and could prohibit them from being able to apply for asylum when Title 42 restrictions are lifted simply because of their race.

The FOIA documents reviewed thus far fail to show whether CBP sought to address issues presented by CBP One’s photo submission requirements.

What is the Future of CBP One?

While the agency has not been forthcoming with plans for the app, its further expansion seems inevitable.

CBP has thus far not provided clear information to the public regarding how an individual may opt out of using CBP One and when the app is mandatory for individuals accessing certain immigration processes. In addition, questions persist as to whether preference for processing at ports of entry will be given to noncitizens who use CBP One, and whether those who choose not to use it will effectively be refused inspection or processing – making it impossible for them to seek asylum in the U.S. Though the Council continues to pursue information about the development of CBP One, the need for clearer information is imminent as the country-specific list of parole programs grows and more people are required to use CBP One, and as the Biden administration determines what its border policy will be after Title 42 ends – a future in which CBP One could become even more central to border processing.

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