Cyber Eye: New INS system must vault high bars

William Jackson

The nation's gatekeepers have just been handed a big job: sharing information about foreign visitors across disparate and incompatible government databases.

The mandate comes from the Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act, signed into law last month. It calls for upgrading the nation's entry and exit systems with machine-readable visas that have biometric identifiers.

That's the easy part. The trick is figuring out who should get such visas. Consular officers and other decision-making officials will need to access pertinent information from the Immigration and Naturalization Service, federal law enforcers and intelligence agencies.

Designers of such a complex system must clear three hurdles, any of which could stymie their efforts.

The first hurdle is incompatibility of the databases scattered across at least 15 agencies. Software such as Microsoft SharePoint can bridge the interoperability gap through an intranet portal for searching multiple servers and data types.

The second hurdle is restricting access to authorized users. Some sensitive data in such files should not be floating around on even a secure intranet.

Third, the system's security features will have to be user-friendly, not merely present. The FBI has learned to its chagrin that if security is hard to use, it won't be used. Access restrictions on the agency's Automated Case System, a supposed repository for all FBI case files, were so convoluted that many agents ignored them or simply refused to file reports in the system.

The net result: a vulnerable and inadequate system for sharing vital information.

The new law does not specify what technology is to be used for the interagency data sharing, only that must be overseen by a nine-member presidential commission. But the future system designers should be aware that they have to start with the end users.

User training must be an integral part, not an afterthought as it often is. If training plans aren't in place long before the rollout, the new system could fail before it even gets started.

The goal is to make America's borders both open and secure. That's a tough straddle

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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