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The US will use biometric methods to control those entering it

Accenture's virtual border security project

Paul McDougal, Information Week

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Those who will travel to the USA in the coming years will probably have to undergo a retinal scan at the American consulate, just to get a visa. When he lands in the US, he will show the immigration official a smart card, which encodes digital information about the configuration of the eye, and will undergo a second retinal scan to verify compatibility. The information will be immediately cross-referenced with a database containing data about known terrorists and criminals. Upon departure, the eye will be scanned again to see if the visa conditions have been exceeded.

This is just one possible scenario of a mega-project called US-Visit (United States Visitor and Immigration Status and Indication Technology), on behalf of the US Department of Homeland Security, which Accenture recently won, in which a comprehensive system will be established to secure the borders of the US . The US Department of Homeland Security began operating parts of the program this year, and as of today it is already taking fingerprints and digital photographs from visitors from certain countries. Now, Accenture has been chosen, to the extent of ten billion dollars, to provide the most advanced technological system for the subject within the next five to ten years.

The Department of Homeland Security has given Accenture broad authority to create "virtual borders" that include scenarios such as retinal scanning, but leaves most of the technical details up to the manufacturer and subcontractors. Accenture officials say that it is still too early to determine which technologies will be used, but it is likely that various combinations of facial and voice recognition technologies, iris and retina scanning, and digital fingerprint scanning technologies will be tested. "All these are things that we examine very closely" says Eric Stinge, director of the security and defense department at Accenture.

The BTP department builds detailed performance standards. The average time period for collecting biometric data from a visitor must not exceed 15 seconds, and the response time for queries to the relevant databases must not exceed ten seconds. The time to obtain biographical information from reading a passport using a scanner shall not exceed one second. The system is also supposed to handle large volumes of information: during 2002, immigration officials performed approximately 440 million checks at 300 points of entry into the US.

Accenture's contract is for five years, followed by periodic extensions of one year at a time. The consulting company will work with 30 subcontractors, including Dell, Raytheon and Titan. Lockheed-Martin and Computer Science also competed in the tender.

Besides dealing with innovative technologies, Accenture and its partners will be forced to link the vast amounts of information that the biometric equipment will issue with the outdated databases of customs, immigration, law enforcement and intelligence agencies. "It's not going to be easy. It's huge, and it spans multiple government agencies and locations," says Randy Haight, director of IT at the Congressional Accountant General's Office.

In order to carry out one of the most important goals of the BTP department - stopping terrorist activity - it will be forced to analyze data and identify suspicious activities. One of Accenture's subcontractors, SRA International, is working with a CIA-funded venture capital firm to improve the capabilities of the software it developed, OrionMagic. The software helps law enforcement to identify patterns and trends within huge volumes of information. The BTP department also asked Accenture to test new technologies for searching names, which incorporate algorithms that are sensitive to the differences between the different languages.

Some worry because of this wish list. Hite says that some of the systems that will be integrated into US Visit do not function as required as standalone applications at all. He mentions the Sevis system, which contains information on foreign students in the US. The users of the system, most of them faculty members at academic institutions, say that sometimes it takes hours just to log into the system, and that it sometimes deletes data without warning.

In the tender document for the project, the BTP department admits that it is going to be complicated: "The program faces extraordinary challenges in the field of IT, which go beyond the usual technical issues found in any IT upgrade program. The main challenge is the need to integrate and create compatibility between many systems, most of them from different production houses."

Technology such as biometric scanners must be put into use with caution to avoid trade disruptions. Calculations by the Ministry of Internal Security (Department of Internal Security) showed that increasing the average duration of handling a vehicle by only nine seconds, at the busiest crossing point, could lead to delays of approximately 11 hours during rush hours. However, it is hoped that the US Visit project will accelerate the flow of goods and people to and from the US, while increasing security. Under the plan, regular commercial traffic from Canada and Mexico will carry a radio frequency identification (RFID) smart card that will be automatically scanned at the border crossing.

In recent years, Canadian Customs at the airports in Halifax and Vancouver have used eye scanning technologies and software from Iridian Technologies. Frequent visitors can volunteer to have their eyes photographed, allowing them an automatic and quick ID check position, thus saving the customs and immigration queues. Jacqueline Dunlap, director of customs at Vancouver International Airport, says that Canadian customs have chosen iris screening because they believe it is more accurate than fingerprint screening. A database about frequent travelers in Canada is linked to several law enforcement databases. "If they have committed a crime, we will know about it," says Dunlap.

Digital fingerprint recognition systems are not perfect, as demonstrated by the false arrest of an Oregon prosecutor on charges of involvement in the terrorist attacks in Madrid. He was released after the FBI admitted that the computerized fingerprint identification that led to the arrest was actually inaccurate. Stinge says that Accenture is testing systems that will scan eight fingerprints compared to the one or two used today.

Technical standards can also create problems. Many government agencies whose systems will connect to US Visit have already started implementing advanced technology programs based on various standards. However, Sting estimates that the size of the US Visit program will help bring uniform standards to some of the developing technologies: "We hope this will have a positive effect on these discussions."

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