INS opens entry/exit door

Tackling what is probably its largest and most complex technology project, the Immigration and Naturalization Service has taken the first step toward building an automated entry/exit system to keep track of foreign visitors.

The computer-based system, which is intended to register when foreign visitors enter and leave — or fail to leave — the United States, is considered a key to increasing the nation's ability to control its borders and improve homeland security.

In a presolicitation notice to potential builders, INS says it wants to rely as much as possible on off-the-shelf technology to "verify and record the identities of persons who enter and exit the United States by air, land or sea."

INS has asked Congress for $380 million to spend on the system in 2003, but the total cost is expected to be much higher.

Robert Mocny, director of the INS' Entry-Exit Project Office, compared the size and complexity of building the system to putting a man on the moon or constructing the Hoover Dam. "It's huge," he said.

INS statistics show that more than 7 million foreign visa holders and "hundreds of millions" of foreigners without visas enter the United States each year. In addition, a half million foreign students are enrolled in American schools. But for now, INS has no reliable means of tracking those visitors, and millions remain past the dates they are required to leave.

Some of the Sept. 11 terrorists were among those who overstay their visas, highlighting the danger that losing track of visitors poses for homeland security.

Among the requirements for the entry/exit system listed in the presolicitation notice are that it must be able to alert government officials if visitors overstay their approved visit periods and if visitors "are or become identified as national security threats."

After installation at air and sea ports in 2003, the system will be installed at the 50 largest land points of entry in 2004 and at all points of entry — about 300 — by the end of 2005.

The system must be able to "interface with multiple existing and potentially future government and commercial industry databases," INS says. Critical government databases include those operated by other Justice Department agencies and the departments of State, Treasury and Transportation, the notice says. Commercial databases include those operated by airlines and shipping lines, Mocny said.

In addition to interoperability, the system must be able to demonstrate "scalability, security and evolvability," the INS notice says.

Although it is not specifically required in law yet, the system also will be expected to read visas, passports or other identification documents that include biometric identifiers, Mocny said.

The system is complex because it involves tying so many databases, computer systems and technologies together, Mocny said. "The scale and scope is what's untried," but "it's doable," he said. "Let's say this, I haven't heard from industry that we can't do it."

INS officials said they plan to issue a formal request for proposals in June. At that point, companies are expected to present designs for consideration.

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