IT challenges meet at the border

Sensors, databases, fingerprints, card readers all must work together at homeland security's flash point

Other stories in this report focus on cross-agency homeland security technology standards in border technology, identity management and credential programs, fusion centers and the multibillion-dollar Integrated Wireless Network program to build a nationwide law enforcement radio network for voice and data.

In each area, the potential for efficiencies and mission improvements from common technology standards force federal information technology manages to make thorny choices involving missing standards, immature standards and the relative merits of settling on one or several systems to deal with specific problems.

Detection Tool: Deployment of the standardized NGI biometric system is 'a huge step forward in the ability to detect the unknown terrorist,' DHS' Michael Chertoff said.

Rick Steele

BROADBAND AT THE BORDER: SBINet's Greg Giddens has laid plans to provide standardized broadband imagery from remote sensors to Border Patrol officers.

Midd Hunt

The effort to build technology standards for border security brings together a perfect storm of systems challenges and underlying policy headaches, according to specialists in the field.

Homeland Security Department Secretary Michael Chertoff has emphasized that the federal approach to pinpointing and excluding terrorists and other dangerous people, in addition to barring hazardous cargo, will begin overseas and continue inside the country.

Meanwhile, the task of facilitating legitimate travel and trade requires systems that can respond quickly with accurate threat information that doesn't hinder commerce or tourism.

Existing border technologies rely on a 'system of systems' that weaves together a patchwork of databases, networks and identity management programs aimed at identifying and excluding threatening cargo and people.

The technology standards conundrums presented by border programs ignite politically explosive issues such as public views on the competing imperatives for privacy and security, along with a heated debate about immigration reform proposals that splits the electorate and political parties.

DHS doesn't lack for critics of its performance in the border technology standards arena.

An informed and representative critique came in a Government Accountability Office report early this year.

'Without a clear operational context to guide and constrain both [the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology program] and other border security and immigration enforcement initiatives, DHS risks investing in programs and systems that are duplicative, are not interoperable, and do not optimize enterprisewide mission operations and produce intended outcomes,' the audit agency stated.

The recent audit, titled 'Homeland Security: US-VISIT Has Not Fully Met Expectations and Longstanding Program Management Challenges Need to Be Addressed,' was triggered by appropriations law language that signals Congress' long-standing frustration with border technology, including its standards features.

Three areas where DHS and its partner agencies are wrangling with border technology standards and interoperability issues are U.S. Visit, SBINet and the Next Generation Identification program.

U.S. Visit

The program started four years ago with the goal of building a system to identify, screen and track people entering and leaving the country.

Making it work involves uniting a mix of old, new and proposed systems. Two key elements currently are DHS' Automated Biometric Identification System (IDENT) fingerprint system from the former Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Arrival Departure Information System (ADIS). These link to systems at the State Department, Customs and Border Protection, Citizenship and Immigration Services, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the FBI.

DHS chief information officer Scott Charbo said in a telephone interview that his agency seeks to further standardize the various databases that constitute U.S. Visit. One emerging method for standardizing the border system databases is a new, unique identification code for each individual, to be known as their bioenumeration number.

'We would like to drive more identity checks through IDENT,' Charbo said. 'U.S. Visit would handle all that.'

The bioenumeration number could be linked to the biometric template for an individual, even if the data fields making up the template were blank, Charbo suggested. 'One approach is to derive a standard enumeration [number] off a fingerprint,' Charbo added.

One of the advantages of the bioenumeration number is that it would not be based on Social Security numbers, which present privacy issues and other problems.
'We are not doing this [bioenumeration number work] yet, but we are working with the data architecture to see if it is a valid concept,' Charbo said.


The Next Generation Identification system provides interoperability between the biometric systems used by DHS, the FBI and State Department.

Challenges 'include different governmental departments with different missions, separate acquisition processes, different standards of fingerprint capture and the needs of various stakeholders,' said Stephen Fischer Jr., chief of multimedia productions for the FBI's Criminal Justice Information Systems Division.

One key difference is that the FBI's Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System uses 10 fingerprints, while DHS' IDENT system and the State Department formerly used only two.

Chertoff kick-started the drive to use standardized biometric identification methods in IAFIS and IDENT by mandating that DHS adopt the FBI's practice of gathering 10 prints.

'Part of our focus over the next two years is going to be to ensure that our U.S. Visit fingerprint analysis process is interoperable with the FBI fingerprint database so that we can conduct more thorough checks, connect immigration and visa information to law enforcement information, and then share these capabilities with our state and local partners,' Chertoff said in recent remarks on the department's information technology agenda.

Chertoff's vision for using the standardized biometric database extends beyond control of border transit to proactive counterterrorism work at home and abroad. 'We're in the process of collecting ' all over the world ' latent fingerprints, which for those of you who watch television is the kind of stuff that criminals leave at the crime scene.'

Chertoff said the deployment of the standardized NGI biometric system was 'a huge step forward in the ability to detect the unknown terrorist. It's also a magnificent deterrent.'

An FBI official describing the bureau's plans for the NGI project in a recent briefing presented to vendors stated that fingerprint checks conducted on enemy combatants in Iraq and Afghanistan had turned up hundreds of 'hits' that pointed to criminal records the individuals had on file in this country.
The NGI program is moving ahead under the auspices of an Integrated
Project Team (IPT) established in 2005.

In the meantime, the Interoperability IPT has piloted an interim solution. On Sept. 3, 2006, the interim Data Sharing Model (iDSM) was deployed to provide exchange of data between IDENT and IAFIS in near-real time.

'With iDSM, for the first time in history, federal, state and local law enforcement, as well as an authorized noncriminal justice agency, have access to biometric-based immigration history information,' Fischer said.

He said that since the agencies launched the standardized data-sharing prototype, the organizations have made more than 127 positive identifications against government data. Incremental phases for full interoperability will be delivered in fiscal 2008 and 2010.


SBINet functions as the border technology under the Secure Border Initiative, which also includes policies to expand the ranks of the Border Patrol, increase detention-bed capacity and quickly repatriate illegal entrants, among other measures.

SBINet is designed to use a mix of cameras, sensors, radar, the Global Positioning System, mapping software and wireless communications to give Border Patrol agents in the field real-time information on unauthorized border crossings. Boeing, lead contractor on the program, deployed its first mobile sensor tower in Arizona last fall, and a second pilot was approved in May for the northern border.

Unlike its predecessors, the Integrated Surveillance Intelligence Systems and the America's Shield Initiative, SBINet has established standardized communications as a key element.

The project includes installing notebooks in agents' trucks, and calls for Border Patrol officers and installations to achieve connectivity with other agencies operating along the border, such as state and local law enforcement units, via standardized radio links.

When border sensors signal an intrusion, SBINet's broadband network will provide images of who is crossing the border and whether they are armed, and display any geographic features and the locations of other agents in the area, according to DHS plans.

While the project is good in theory, Rich Pierce, executive vice president of the National Border Patrol Council, said he doubts it will work. A key issue is whether the communications systems will function properly in the field.

'I've been involved with the Border Patrol for 30 years, and we've never had an adequate radio system,' he said. 'West Texas is a disaster for communications when you get up in the mountains.'

He said that having the sensors in place will be helpful ' as long as they don't generate as many false alarms as their predecessors ' but are not the complete answer.

'There seems to be a push to solve immigration problems with buttons rather than bodies, and it is not going to work,' he said. 'Without the people on the ground to respond to what any sensor or camera sees, it is useless.'

SBINet program manager Greg Giddens, who oversees the work of prime contractor Boeing, has emphasized the importance of achieving interoperable communications among Border Patrol agents and other border agency personnel via standardized systems as appropriate.

Giddens has laid plans for command centers that will provide standardized broadband imagery to Border Patrol officers who will for the first time be able to see the information that various remote sensors capture and stream back to what he called 'the great wall of knowledge' in the command centers.

The SBINet leader emphasized the risks that the frequently outnumbered Border Patrol officers face when approaching suspect groups of unknown size lurking in desert scrub along the border at night.

Giddens highlighted the importance of deploying the standardized broadband links by saying, 'If it was your son or daughter out there [in the Border Patrol], wouldn't you want them to have that capability [for better situational awareness when confronting illegal entrants]?'


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