The idea was bold, when it was proposed back in 2003: a "futuristic surveillance and intelligence network" to regulate immigration, "rely[ing] on databases, digital cameras, face- and voice-recognition systems and electronic-fingerprint readers, all linked by computer."But nearly two years later, the next-gen promises of the US-VISIT "virtual border" project have been left by the wayside, the Washington Post reports. What's left is decidely less impressive -- creaky and old-school.
For now, US-VISIT is relying on several aging and ineffective computer systems that were designed in the 1990s by contractors for the former Immigration and Naturalization Service, which was merged in 2003 into the new Homeland Security Department...One of the programs [is] a computer network known as IDENT, which requires travelers to submit prints of both index fingers at U.S. consulates and embassies overseas. IDENT then collects two index fingerprints from those visitors at the U.S. border and matches them against a database to determine whether they are allowed into the country...Scientists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, under congressional mandate to develop biometric standards for screening foreign visitors, recommended the government use 10 fingerprints. Using all 10 prints provides better matching capabilities and interoperability with other databases, the scientists said in their 2003 report.US-VISIT officials did not heed the scientists' advice...They promised to upgrade the two-fingerprint IDENT system.Last fall, U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Robert C. Bonner said authorities had made improvements to the IDENT system so it could communicate more effectively with the FBI's database...But the government's own studies show IDENT is not fully integrated with the FBI system. One study by the Justice Department's inspector general's office, released three months after Bonner's remarks, concluded that progress toward making IDENT fully interoperable with other systems, including the FBI's, has "stalled."The technology's limits and the government's desire to avoid long delays curbs the number of people who can be thoroughly screened. This year, homeland security officials expect to check about 800 people out of the roughly 118,000 visitors a day who should be screened against the FBI database, the Justice Department's inspector general said."The lack of immediate access to the FBI's full criminal master file creates a risk that a terrorist could enter the country undetected," the inspector general found.Last fall, Stanford University researcher Lawrence M. Wein testified before Congress that US-VISIT, using IDENT, had no more than a 53 percent chance of catching a terrorist who had altered his or her fingerprints, even if that person was on a terrorist watch list. Wein said authorities should not assume the current two-fingerprint system is sufficient to stop terrorists. "It would be naive to think that these people are not trying to defeat the system," he said.