New tech could help bolster borders

Critics attack State Department's decision to use long-range RFID in passport cards

Conditions on SBInet

Lawmakers attached a provision to the fiscal 2008 omnibus spending bill demanding that Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff submit an expenditure plan for fencing and technology border barrier projects under the Secure Border Initiative’s SBInet program. Full funding of the program is conditional on appropriators receiving the plan within 90 days. That provision requires DHS to provide:

  • Detailed accounting of SBInet thus far.

  • Descriptions of how activities will advance the overall project’s objectives.

  • Milestones for expenditures.

  • Description of staffing.

  • Description of how the plan addresses security needs on the border with Canada.

  • A report on costs incurred and tasks completed.

  • A listing of all Government Accountability Office and DHS inspector general recommendations.

  • Various certifications from the chief procurement officer, human capital officer and chief information officer.

  • — Ben Bain

    Federal officials say they are optimistic that the State Department’s published specifications for new passport cards for U.S. citizens will kick-start technology improvements at U.S. border stations.

    State announced a final rule for passport cards Dec. 31 to facilitate travel between the United States, Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean and Bermuda. The rule requires cards with vicinity radio frequency identification tags to shorten delays at land border crossings. Currently, U.S., Canadian and Bermudian citizens entering the United States across land and sea borders are not required to present citizenship documents.

    In the meantime, the Homeland Security Department conditionally accepted software for the first task order under SBInet, a multibillion-dollar project to deploy technology and tactical infrastructure to secure U.S. borders.

    Customs and Border Protection agency officials said the highly anticipated announcements will help bolster security and facilitate legitimate movement of goods and people across U.S. borders. Six lawmakers traveled to El Paso, Texas, last week to more closely examine DHS’ efforts to find that balance.

    Each day, CBP agents inspect 1.1 million travelers, 327,000 cars and 85,000 shipments of goods. They also intercept 21,000 fraudulent identification documents and 200,000 people who are refused entry each year.

    At a field hearing of the House Homeland Security Committee in El Paso, federal officials, government auditors and other experts testified to growing concern about whether CBP is prepared to deal with technological advances.

    Richard Stana, the Government Accountability Office’s director of homeland security and justice issues, testified that CBP needs more employees, some guards have insufficient training, and the agency needs a better management structure and more money to update older facilities. CBP estimated that it would require about $4 billion to make capital improvements to U.S. land ports, according to Stana’s testimony.

    “The average age of our facilities is 42 years old, and they were not designed for our current operations,” said Thomas Winkowski, assistant commissioner at CBP’s office of field operations, in written testimony submitted at the hearing. “The vast majority of these facilities were not built to incorporate all of the enhanced security features that are now present at our ports of entry.… Our facilities are stretched to the limit.”

    Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, also stressed the need for improvements in a written statement.

    Rep. David Davis (R-Tenn.), one of three lawmakers from the Homeland Security Committee at the hearing, said that despite those issues, he was impressed with what he saw, especially the use of technology. Winkowski added that in addition to technological obstacles, border guards also face identification challenges.

    Derwood Staeben, Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative program manager at State, said the new passport cards will improve border security.

    Officials said they hope the cards will be available this spring. The cards will let border guards use a vicinity RFID technology to access travelers’ unique identifying number and begin to screen people as they wait in line.

    Lawmakers recently delayed the deadline for implementing WHTI to June 1, 2009, as part of the approved fiscal 2008 DHS budget. Appropriators approved $225 million for 2008 for State and DHS to advance the project.

    Privacy advocates have criticized the decision to use vicinity-read RFID technology because they say it is less secure than the proximity-read RFID technology contained in U.S. electronic passports.

    But State and DHS officials argue that there is no increased risk of privacy violations because the new passport cards will contain no personally identifiable information, just a unique identifying number that only CBP agents can use in conjunction with certain databases.

    Furthermore, CBP has employed the same technology as part of its trusted traveler programs, said CBP spokeswoman Kelly Klundt.

    Meanwhile, Boeing has been chided for delays in completing the project’s first task order.

    DHS awarded Boeing a $64 million SBInet task order to design, develop and test an upgraded Common Operational Picture software system.

    About the Author

    Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.


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