DHS, State plan new IT for borders

The State and Homeland Security departments are relying on information technology to fulfill their vision of more secure and welcoming borders, the departments’ chiefs said today.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff shared a three-part strategy that will create a new travel document for U.S. citizens, improve passenger screening programs and use IT to make foreign visitors feel more welcome.

By the end of this year, DHS and State expect to create an inexpensive, efficient and interoperable card system for U.S. citizens who frequently cross the Canadian or Mexican borders, Chertoff said.

The People Access Security Service (PASS) card will meet the requirements of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, which requires that by Jan. 1, 2008, anyone entering the United States, including U.S. citizens, have travel documents that prove their identity and citizenship.

The PASS cards will be the first step in creating a Global Enrollment Network for all voluntary registration programs for travelers, Chertoff said. The network will allow applicants to submit their information to DHS or State, and both departments would then be able to access the data to confirm travelers’ identities.

DHS and State aim to standardize screening criteria by the end of 2006 and build a virtual clearinghouse of all screening databases by the end of 2007, Chertoff said.

Because State and DHS will integrate their IT programs and data sharing, DHS intends to create a governmentwide process to redress errors in passenger screening, he said.

State is developing a digital videoconferencing program to expedite visa issuance, Rice said.

DHS and State are working together on a paperless visa process and plan to debut a fully electronic visa application by December, Rice said. The departments are also planning a pilot program through which DHS could electronically access visa, passport and biometric data that State collects.

After the secretaries made their announcements, several senior officials at the departments elaborated on the programs during a press briefing in which they insisted on anonymity in return for additional facts.

State will begin issuing the PASS cards by the end of the year, a senior DHS official said. DHS is working on technical standards for the cards with State and has not determined when the program will go out to bid, the official said. Neither department knows how much the program will cost or where the money will come from, the official said.

U.S. passport holders will get a different card from those who don’t have passports because passport holders have already undergone a security check, the DHS official said. The new cards will cost about half as much as a passport.

“We have to make it easier” to cross the border securely, the official said. “Not everybody has a passport. Not everybody wants a passport.”

The cards will contain a digital picture of the holder as a facial biometric, the official said. Another senior DHS official added that the cards will have embedded radio frequency identification chips to speed identification of the holder.

State’s digital videoconferencing system for visa issuance will save applicants from having to travel from their homes to U.S. consulates in major cities, a senior State official said.

Interviewing visa applicants remotely “could be the largest qualitative change in the way we handle visa applications in 150 years,” the official said.

The biggest challenge will be establishing the reliability of the documents and identity of applicants, the State official said.

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