In an address to the 2008 Science and Technology Stakeholders Conference East yesterday, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff outlined the progress the department has made in the last year toward increasing the security of the homeland in a way that allows the vast majority of transactions, trade and travel to continue unhindered, and the role technology plays in achieving this goal.
To that end, Secretary Chertoff outlined several areas where technology can play a role: protecting the United States from dangerous people and things, securing the nation's critical infrastructure, strengthening emergency preparedness and response and integrating the Department of Homeland Security as an enterprise.
In the last year 414 million people came into the United States, Chertoff noted. "That meant we had literally seconds to determine who among this vast throng of travelers might be coming here for the purpose of doing us harm," he said. "And we had to do this analysis in a way that protected the privacy and allowed the vast majority of innocent travelers to pass unhindered into the United States."
In winnowing out of this large number people the few who are dangerous from the vast majority who are not, the department had to do several things, Chertoff said. "First, we had to get some advance information when we could about who was coming in. We had to confirm their identities with speed and accuracy and check them against watch-lists. We had to prevent them from impersonating another individual using fraudulent documents. And we had to protect against the possibility of an unknown, yet-to-be identified terrorist hiding among these travelers."
Technology plays a role in each of these tasks, Chertoff said.
Two such areas where technology is involved are confirming the identity of travelers and ensuring they are who they say they are through the verification of travel documents. DHS is currently upgrading its current fingerprint identification system that only captures two fingerprints to a system that collects all ten fingerprints from an individual. "We do this using a technology that is not only more accurate than under the old two-print system, but a technology that allows us to scan and match the fingerprints that we're collecting from those who enter the country or seek visas against a database of latent prints we've collected across the globe at crime scenes and safe houses and even on battlefields."
Not only is this a good tool to aid in the identification of unknown terrorists, but it also acts as a deterrent, Chertoff noted. "Terrorists who have been in safe houses or training camps now have to wonder whether they have left fingerprints behind that have been lifted, captured, and recorded in a database so that when they cross our border they will face the possibility of being arrested because we're able to make that connection between that latent fingerprint at the scene of a bomb making factory and the fingerprint of the traveler who is seeking to enter the country," he said.
Following 9/11 the DHS has taken dramatic, long-overdue steps to make America's airports safer and more secure using multiple layers of security, many of which are technology-based, Chertoff said.
However, this increased level of airport security has not always been comfortable for passengers. That is why, a little over a month ago at Baltimore/Washington International (BWI) airport, Chertoff announced a three-fold set of changes that will not only further enhance security, but make traveling more palatable.
The first change tackles the problem of misidentification or false positives, in which a person winds up not being able to get their ticket or their boarding pass right away because their name happens to match the name of a person who's on a watch list. Under the new system announced at BWI, airlines will, if they chose, now be able to