State, DHS to use tech to secure borders with U.S. neighbors

The State and Homeland Security departments are collaborating on new information technology programs to make the country's borders more secure against threats and more friendly to legitimate visitors, especially those coming for business, officials announced last week.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff unveiled a three-part strategy Jan. 17. "We want strong security at the border but to keep the welcome mat out," Chertoff said.

By the end of this year, DHS and State expect to develop an inexpensive and interoperable card system for U.S. citizens who frequently cross the Canadian or Mexican borders, Chertoff said. The People Access Security Service (PASS) cards will include digital photographs and radio frequency identification technology.

The PASS system will be the first step in creating a global enrollment network for all voluntary registration programs for travelers, DHS spokesman Jarrod Agen said. The network will combine PASS features and three U.S. Customs and Border Protection voluntary credentialing programs for border security: NEXUS, Secure Electronic Network for Travelers Rapid Inspection, and Free and Secure Trade. Other identity cards and driver's licenses along border states might eventually add PASS technology, he said.

The departments plan to debut a fully electronic visa application by December and are planning a pilot program that would allow DHS to electronically access visa, passport and biometric data that State collects.

To make it easier to conduct business in the United States, State is developing an online application and appointment system for visa processing, Rice said. It is also working on a digital videoconferencing program to expedite visa issuance for people who live far from U.S. consulates.

The systems could revolutionize the visa application process for people who must travel thousands of miles to appear in person, said Angelo Amador, director of immigration policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Right now, he said, "it's like having to fly to Texas [from Washington, D.C.] to get their [driver's] license."

The joint DHS/State programs are an opportunity to develop innovative technology, said Jennifer Kerber, director of homeland security at the IT Association of America. "It's Homeland Security and State viewing IT as a force multiplier and allowing them to extend the capabilities of their human capital," she said.

Bonding over border tech

The State and Homeland Security departments are collaborating on border security technologies to produce:

  • Real-time information sharing with each other and with governments worldwide.
  • Electronic passports and other credentials with digital photographs and radio frequency identification technology.
  • A virtual clearinghouse for screening data.
  • Online visa applications, scheduling and processing.
  • Digital videoconferencing for visa applicants.

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