IT in play at Olympics

The State Department has issued more than 9,000 visas to Olympic participants using a new high-tech security system that makes it possible to check their backgrounds for terrorist connections before electronically issuing a forgery-proof document.

The Olympic Visa Information Database 2002 (OVID 2002) began approving credentials Nov. 15. State Department officials anticipate the system will issue as many as 20,000 visas to athletes, coaches, the media and other officials for the Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games scheduled to begin Feb. 8 in Salt Lake City.

"It is the wave of the future," said Ron Acker, OVID 2002 program manager. "We're going to have a centralized system for these visas."

This is the first time that the State Department has issued visas electronically. In the past, athletes and their coaches submitted visas to a local U.S. embassy, filled out a paper application and received a hard-copy visa after embassy officials conducted a cursory check with the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS).

Under the new electronic system, a participant fills out an application on paper and submits it to his or her country's Olympic committee, which verifies the credentials. The committee sends the application to the Salt Lake City Olympic Committee (SLOC), where it is keyed in to an electronic database. It is then sent electronically through various databases using software developed by SI International Inc., a McLean, Va., firm.

Computers then check whether the person's name is stored in databases operated by law enforcement agencies, the State Department, intelligence agencies and even the Federal Aviation Administration, all of which list individuals who are known criminals, suspected terrorists or are the subjects of outstanding warrants. If computers find a match, the application is delayed and investigated.

Once the application is cleared, SLOC issues the visa to the Olympic committee in the participant's home country. When he or she arrives at a U.S. port, INS officials recheck the database of legitimate visas to verify the information.

The system has received a complete security review and was approved by the National Security Agency, as well as by diplomatic security. "The information is sealed off from everything in the world," Acker said.

The secure document includes a digital picture of the participant on the visa and threads of colored paper that help prevent forgeries.

The system is expected to gain wider use after the Olympics as U.S. officials look for better ways to detect foreign terrorists trying to enter the United States. "I think it's an awfully good step in the right direction; whether it's enough remains to be seen," said Roger Thompson, director of malicious code research for Herndon, Va., firm TruSecure Corp., which advises companies on security.

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