U.S. eyes technology to beef up border security

Technological deficiencies within the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Services “helped cause” the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and now technology must help boost security, says the chair of the U.S. Senate’s technology and terrorism subcommittee.

“In a time when terrorists use satellite phones and encrypted e-mails, INS is stuck in the technological dark ages,” said Republican California Senator Dianne Feinstein at a recent hearing. She charged that government agencies rely on “archaic systems that lead to poor communication.”

Understaffed border patrols need more cameras, sensors, and monitoring devices, said Glenn Fine, inspector general with the U.S. Department of Justice.

The northern border is especially ill-equipped, he noted. One patrol group responsible for 300 miles of U.S.-Canadian border has only 36 sensors, he said.

Changes are clearly in the works. For example, database vendor Oracle Corp. has offered to donate software and staffing to create a national identification database, Feinstein said. But that’s only one aspect of what she, other senators, and several experts, envision for INS systems.

Better training and more widespread use of a portable, wireless biometric identification system, dubbed IDENT, is planned, says INS Commissioner James W. Ziglar. Currently, agents get little training in using the system, he said.

The INS now relies on a computer database of names, which makes identity theft easy, Feinstein said. IDENT or other biometric systems would reduce reliance on identification documents, such as driver’s licenses, that can be easily faked.

Fingerprinting is the simplest method of biometric identification. More sophisticated methods, proposed for airport security as well as the border patrol, include automated face recognition, such as iris scanning.

Better record keeping and cross-references might have identified some of the terrorists who acted on Sept. 11, Feinstein noted, listing some identifiable oversights.

Feinstein noted that 13 of the 19 individuals identified as the Sept. 11 hijackers had entered the United States with visas, some of which had expired before the date of the attacks. The INS has no information on the other six hijackers.

In addition, 23 million non-citizens legally entered the United States last year without visas under a waiver agreement between the United States and 29 other countries. During the same period, 7.1 million people arrived with temporary documents such as student visas that the INS has no reliable way of tracking.

“In the last ten years, more than 16,000 students came from such terrorist-supporting states as Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Libya, and Syria,” Feinstein said. Those numbers do not include the 500 million people who move across U.S. borders and through U.S. ports each year.

“We have had plenty of warning of the serious weaknesses in our immigration system that led to the horrific Sept. 11 attacks,” she said. “That was our wake-up call.”