Consolidated ID cards and automated checkpoint systems streamline the flow at border crossings

GCN Awards Some things just don't go well together: oil and water, Macs and PCs, speed and security. “Businesses along the border depend on the efficient flow of traffic, and we want to facilitate that commerce,” said Christopher Milowic, branch director of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection's Office of Information Technology in Springfield, Va. “But sometimes the twin goals of security and facilitation butt up against each other. To achieve more security, the tendency is to slow things down at the border.”

Heightened border security in wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks was adding to delays at the U.S. land ports of entry along the Mexican and Canadian borders. The busiest of these, the San Ysidro crossing near San Diego, processed nearly 50 million people entering from Mexico in fiscal 2004. By 2007, this had dropped by more than 10 million, which the executive director of the local Chamber of Commerce attributed to long delays at the border.

When the 9/11 Commission recommended -- and the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 mandated -- tighter control over entry to the country, also stipulated that the new procedures must not slow down checks at the border. Americans and Canadians could present any of more than 8,000 documents that officers had to examine for validity. Federal agencies responded with the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI), which standardized the documents required for entry. The State Department was responsible for creating the travel documents while the Homeland Security Department set up systems at the borders.

Branch Chief Christopher Milowic, center, and the staff at CBP Office of Information Technology

Fast lanes of inspection: Branch Chief Christopher Milowic and the staff at CBP’s Office of Information Technology installed reader systems that kept traffic moving at border checkpoints.

“Cooperation among directorates within the Bureau of Consular Affairs and close interagency coordination with DHS, especially CBP, was crucial to the success of this program,” said State Department spokesperson Adriana Gallegos.

On June 1, the project to deploy the new system at the 39 largest ports of entry was completed – on time and on budget. During the first week of June, the new system processed more than 1.7 million vehicles and 2.5 million travelers. More than 90 percent of the travelers had WHTI-compliant IDs, and the automated verification system had a query response time of less than two seconds.

“The compliance level exceeded our expectations,” said Colleen Manaher, director of the WHTI Project Management Office. “You can imagine the time savings of going to six secure documents that can be authenticated back to the source agency.”

Dealing the cards

The State Department had the task of creating the ID cards used for border crossers. For U.S. citizens, this meant a secure, credit card-sized Passport Card and, for Mexican nationals, an enhanced Border Crossing Card (BCC).

“Hitherto, these two products would likely have seen separate development, contracting and deployment, but linking them facilitated efforts to consolidate administration and technology development within the State Department,” said Kirit Amin, the director of State’s Consular Systems and Technology Office and CIO of Consular Affairs, who guides and directs all of the bureau’s information technology efforts. “Our efforts to streamline and reorganize our operations with a focus on service delivery resulted in the decision to use the same facilities, hardware and software infrastructure, and a single contractor to produce cards, promoting software and data reuse and a single system solution.”

State used the lessons it learned in the 2002 ePassport implementation. Both the BCC and passport cards are readable by either radio frequency identification or Machine Readable Zone (MRZ) readers. (The MRZ is a section on the card containing information such as name, passport number and date of birth that can be read by optical readers.) For privacy and security, the only data embedded in the RFID chip is the card number; there is no personal data. State began working on the passport cards in 2005 and replaced DHS in issuing the BCCs in October 2008. Approximately 2 million border cards were issued by the end of fiscal 2009.

“In making the data associated with the bearer of these documents accessible in real time at the port of entry, we are creating a border that is both more secure and more efficient,” Amin said.

Assembling the pieces

The WHTI project is a combination of hardware, software and infrastructure deployed over a 17-month period.

“We work in a very integrated fashion, both with in-house as well as with outside contractors,” Manaher said. “Unisys was the prime integrator and we also had a PR contract to help with getting our communications message to the American people.”

The system comprises four main elements. The software, called the Vehicle Primary Client (VPC), was developed by CBP staff and in-house contractors. VPC is the interface the officers on the border use to view information and run queries on visitors or returning citizens. It consists of a Java thin client, Oracle databases and service calls to the Treasury Enforcement Communications System (TECS) mainframe. A second element was RFID-enabled travel documents – driver's licenses, passports or cards – issued by State, participating border states along the Canadian border -- Michigan, New York, Vermont and Washington -- and four Canadian provinces.

Unisys was given the prime contract for the other two elements -- a license plate reader system and RFID readers – and deploying the system at the ports of entry.

With the new system, when a car approaches the border station, cameras take pictures of the license plate, the car and the driver. The Perceptics system interprets the license plate image to determine the plate number and issuing agency. That data can be fed into law enforcement databases for background checks. The RFID readers pick up the information from the driver's and passengers' travel documents, and this is checked against DHS databases. By the time the vehicle reaches the CBP officer for inspection, the information from the license plate reader and RFID systems, as well as any automated queries, is already visible in the VPC interface on the officer's workstation.

A matter of timing

Speed wasn't just an issue with getting visitors through the checkpoint but with deploying WHTI itself. The funds for the project were just approved in late fiscal 2007, and there was a statutory deadline of June 1, 2009. A request for proposals was issued in 2007 and awarded to Unisys in January 2008, leaving less than 17 months to deploy the system to nearly 400 inspection lanes at 60 sites (a single port of entry may have more than one location). It also required upgrades to the data center, circuit upgrades at the ports of entry and other changes to fully deploy the new system.

“It was a very aggressive schedule," Milowic said. "We had to push hard and move fast.”

Further complicating the matter, the installations were all being done at active ports, many of which operate around the clock.

“We are going in to do these construction activities, system installation, train their officers and otherwise get them ready to operate the system,” Milowic said. “We had to work very hard to minimize operational impacts.”

To keep the overall project on target, the team had to be flexible on the day-to-day operations. “When a problem arose, we confronted it and dealt with it immediately,” Milowic said.

The approach worked. One by one, the lanes and then full locations were brought into the WHTI system, with the final units brought on line before the June 1 deadline.

“We had a very clear mission, a clear goal and we had risk takers,” Manaher said. “I would like to say it was just good program management that made this a success, but in reality it was all about the team.”


  • senior center (vuqarali/

    Bmore Responsive: Home-grown emergency response coordination 

    Working with the local Code for America brigade, Baltimore’s Health Department built a new contact management system that saves hundreds of hours when checking in on senior care centers during emergencies.

  • man checking phone in the dark (Maridav/

    AI-based ‘listening’ helps VA monitor vets’ mental health

    To better monitor veterans’ mental health, especially during the pandemic, the Department of Veterans Affairs is relying on data and artificial intelligence-based analytics.

Stay Connected