ID programs at fork in the road

DHS, State moving forward on credentials, but will take different technology paths


The State and Homeland Security departments are poised to take major steps forward on biometric identification card technology, but the paths ahead for each of two concurrent programs appear dramatically different.

State now is awaiting proposals from vendors to provide equipment to manufacture the People Access Security Service card, sometimes referred to as passport-lite.

The technology issues surrounding the PASS card have proven to be no less contentious than the underlying policy requirement that citizens returning to the country show secure biometric identification, such as a passport or PASS card.

'USCIS recognizes, furthermore, that its dependence on paper files makes it difficult to efficiently process immigration benefits, verify
identity of applicants and provide other government agencies the information required to quickly identify criminals and possible terrorists.'
Citizenship and Immigration Services

DHS' Citizenship and Immigration Services has issued a statement of objectives that sets out its requirements as part of its acquisition process for a broad overhaul of the agency's technology for manufacturing various kinds of credentials ' most of them used as visas and identification at borders and to prove eligibility for employment.

CIS has outlined an ambitious project that could produce tens of millions of ID cards using several technologies, but State has settled on a single technology for its smaller, less ambitious program.

CIS calls its project the Integrated Card Production System Technology Refreshment Initiative.

According to the objectives statement, the CIS project will replace card production equipment that is about 10 years old. The agency said much of the equipment is so obsolete that spare parts and materials used in the card production process are no longer manufactured or are in short supply.

The card production project is dining under a massive hanging sword: pending legislation that would create what the Bush administration calls a path to citizenship for almost 12 million illegal aliens.

Under legislation pending in the Senate, the current group of illegal aliens would become eligible for a new Z visa status. Residents with a Z visa would face an arduous road to citizenship that would include return to their home country, payment of a fee of as much as $5,000 and a years-long waiting period.

An additional new category of visas that the immigration legislation may eventually include ' if it is passed ' would allow temporary workers to enter the country for two separate, two-year stints.

The immigration proposals would require massive reinforcement of CIS' application process, which now relies largely on the manual entry of data that noncitizens submit on paper to the agency's four regional centers.

Hot potato

Much of the information involved resides in paper files, which agency employees exchange in a process that has frequently led to the loss of data and years-long adjudication delays, according to several Government Accountability Office, DHS' Inspector General Office and congressional reports.

CIS officials have made elimination of their agency's backlog a high priority in recent years.

In March, CIS released a Concept of Operations plan, which states that the agency processes about 7.5 million applications annually for more than 50 different categories of immigration benefits. 'USCIS recognizes, furthermore, that its dependence on paper files makes it difficult to efficiently process immigration benefits, verify identity of applicants and provide other government agencies the information required to quickly identify criminals and possible terrorists,' the agency's transformation plan said.

The agency's Transformation Program Office has been created to mastermind CIS' shift from a fragmented, paper-based business process to a method centered on its customers that will consolidate all information from a person's first contact with the organization all the way through the process.

Immigration benefits processes can be some of the most durable administrative proceedings in the federal government. CIS' record retention policy calls for immigration status documents to be kept for almost 100 years.

This longevity reflects the fact that the immigration status of a person's parents can affect their own eligibility for various benefits.

Gearing up to manufacture new cards is part of the transformation.

CIS' objectives statement for the card equipment acquisition would require the chosen vendor to provide several types of security technologies, including radio frequency identification-equipped cards, cards that comply with the Federal Information Processing Standard 201 rule that mandates the use of integrated circuits, cards secured by laser technology and 'other state-of-the-art card technologies.'

CIS seeks a vendor that can provide equipment that can personalize 8 million cards annually at first, potentially increasing to 28 million cards annually. The vendor would be required to provide an initial installation at the agency's Corbin, Ky., facility, CIS said. A second installation likely would be installed at CIS' Vermont facility, according to procurement documents.

The broad outline of CIS' technology makeover plan calls for state-of-the-art systems that could be progressively migrated to more sophisticated and efficient methods.

But independent observers of the agency, including DHS' IG Office and systems professionals who have studied the process from the inside and outside, express skepticism of CIS' change process. The sources spoke on condition of anonymity.
'The card production project is not properly integrated with the rest of CIS' operations,' one vendor said.

Industry sources echo auditors' findings that CIS technology transformation work has stalled repeatedly over the past three years. Some analysts cite delays resulting from disputes between the agency's technology offices and its operational divisions.

'CIS said going into the transformation project that it planned to completely re-engineer the process and possibly outsource its IT work,' one analyst said. 'Then ' in the fine print ' they took that away and said, 'Do it the old way.' '

CIS is building a card production capability that promises to encompass a broad range of technologies and a high production rate. At full capacity, the CIS card production systems could generate new identity documents for more than one in 10 of the country's adult residents annually.

Narrow focus

State, by contrast, has a much more limited agenda in its PASS card proposal request. The department is asking for bids on a technology model much more specifically defined than CIS' broad-brush objectives statement.

The credit card-sized State credential will bear the words Passport Card on the front and PASS system on the back. The front of the card will include a photo and the bearer's name, birthplace, birth date and sex, in addition to the issuance and expiration dates.

The PASS credentials also will have special security features and a simple RFID chip designed to transmit a number when interrogated by a reader from as far as about 30 feet. That number will point to a DHS database file containing to the traveler' informtion.

The PASS card also will include the symbols that appear on conventional passports in the Machine Readable Zone, which resemble strings of sideways carets interspersed with alphanumeric characters.

State's choice of vicinity ' or long-range ' RFID technology for the PASS Card represented a defeat for the Smart Card Alliance and other proponents of proximity technology that can be read only at a maximum distance of four centimeters, according to various sources.

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