Departments get serious about border technologies

State Department summary says the government has looked to enhance its relationship with the private sector.

The departments of State and Homeland Security have made significant progress toward improving border technologies, according to a summary of accomplishments the government said it made in the last year.

In January 2006, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff announced their strategic vision for securing the nation's borders. The agenda included using new information technology to make it easier for foreign visitors to travel to the United States and creating travel documents to quickly verify people's identities as they cross the border.

Rice also said in her 2006 speech that the U.S. government planned to "conduct smarter screening in every place that we encounter travelers."

The summary that State released late Thursday said the department is working with Homeland Security to identify the best practices at U.S. ports, such as improved screening, more efficient movement of people, and customized video messages with information on the entry process. State tested various methods in 2006 to "remotely collect fingerprints and capture data for the non-immigrant application form from applicants with special needs," the summary said.

The government also announced an increase in the issuance of student and business visas since the September 2001 terrorist attacks.

In the past year, the summary said the government has looked to enhance its relationship with the private sector. Both departments plan to soon inaugurate a program that would be a "streamlined redress center for travelers who have concerns about their treatment in the screening process."

State said in August that it had begun issuing electronic passports to business and tourist travelers, and the summary noted that by spring "all 17 passport issuance agencies will be converted to full e-passport production."

The department is currently seeking feedback on a proposed credit-card-sized identification documentation that would "offer a secure, less expensive alternative to the passport book for border community residents," the summary said. The border-crossing cards that the United States issues to Mexican citizens along the southern border also will be updated to incorporate that technology, the department said.

State noted that Homeland Security has established "a single trusted-traveler program strategy that integrates all existing and proposed trusted-traveler programs for international air, land and sea travel." The core information system for it is the Global Enrollment System.

The government also announced improvements in screening technology.

As of Jan. 23 all U.S.-bound air travelers, including American citizens, must submit secure documents. As of November, all applicants for non-immigrant visas must use electronic application forms, which State said should be available online by the end of fiscal 2007.

In 2006, the government began testing digital videoconferencing and expanded its use of facial-recognition technology to identify visa applicants. "We expect to soon begin using this technology to assist in adjudicating passport applications," the department said.

The State Department also has initiated conversations with 28 countries to determine the degree to which they may be interested in sharing "terrorist lookout information."