Secretary Chertoff Provides Update on Using Technology to Secure the Homeland

Border security, critical infrastructure security, strengthening emergency preparedness and interoperable communications among priorities.

by / June 4, 2008

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

store more biographical data in their systems which will allow them to distinguish the false positives from the true positives for purposes of screening and will allow passengers, all passengers who are not on an actual no-fly list, to obtain their boarding pass at a kiosk or even online in the same way that every other traveler does.

The second change that was announced involved the creation of new identification standards at airports to give travelers greater clarity about what documents will be acceptable. "Much like our efforts through the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, this change will give our document checkers a smaller universe of documents to inspect which will give them a better ability to detect forgeries and will also provide greater clarity for the traveling public about what kind of documents are acceptable," Chertoff said.

The third change unveiled at BWI was what was called checkpoint evolution. This involves three things. The deployment of, multiple-view millimeter wave x-rays to help look at the body and see if something is concealed. It also involves the use of better technology to actually examine what is in the carry-on baggage, and it involves the ability to use - and this is not quite so high tech - but use lighting, music and signage and reconfiguration of airports' open spaces to reduce the stress passengers experience when traveling through airports.

The use of technology to prevent people from impersonating others in order to evade watch lists is also critical. Chertoff said technology is a key enabler of programs such as the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative and the Visa Waiver Program under which secure forms of identification ensure people are not able to disguise their identity to gain entry into the United States, to get on an airplane or enter a federal government building.

To prevent people from entering the United States illegally for the purpose of human trafficking, drug smuggling, or committing terrorism, the Border Patrol combines a whole suite of technological capabilities (including ground based radar, aerial video, ground-based video, ground-based sensors and modern communications equipment) that varies depending on the terrain at a particular point to better detect and disrupt those who want to cross the border. "This is truly using technology to leverage the ability of the boots on the ground, the Border Patrol agents themselves, to do their jobs as efficiently and as safely as possible," Chertoff said.

Technology also plays a critical role in keeping dangerous substances, such as radioactive materials, out of the country. To that end, Chertoff said the DHS has deployed over a thousand radiation portal monitors to scan nearly all cargo inbound to the United States. "And we are working on the next generation of technology for radiation detection that will be smaller, more precise and easier to deploy," he said.

The fourth element of the DHS's strategy is emergency preparedness and response. "Here's where interoperability and other communications technology plays a very critical, enabling role. Of course, the gateway technologies that now allow us to communicate across various frequencies is a critical technological tool that has driven us in the direction of interoperability."

However, Chertoff noted technology by itself is not a magic bullet. Much of the work that will make interoperable communications a reality will take place between organizations agreeing on common language, protocols and standards as well as the technological components that will facilitate that communication. "A good piece of what has to be done to complete the drive to interoperability is an agreement on common language, common protocols for communication, and common standards. If you don't get this agreement among the responders in the field, no amount of technology is going to allow them to communicate with each other," he said

Technology only works in the context of a system which has been designed to achieve an end, one that consideration of human factors and the incentive structure that drives agencies to want to communicate with each other, Chertoff said.

The final priority Chertoff talked about was the drive by the DHS to consolidate its information technology systems and work as a more cohesive organization. Chertoff noted that the agency has consolidated 17 data centers to just two and is working on consolidating seven wide area networks into one agency-wide network.

He also mentioned the agency's ambitious cyber-security initiative. "Technology will be an ingredient, although not the totality, of what I think is the most ambitious and perhaps long overdue effort to take a jump forward in cyber security in recognition of the significant vulnerability we currently have with respect to penetration by cyber espionage, and vulnerability to cyber terrorism or efforts to destroy or damage our infrastructure using computer networks," Chertoff said.

In closing Chertoff said he remains confident that "we will continue to build on the technology and ingenuity of groups like this as part of a systems-based strategy to elevating the security of the homeland, but doing it in a way that allows the vast majority of transactions and trade and travel to continue unhindered in a way that serves our freedom and our prosperity."