Attention taxpayers: The United States government is about to spend at least $10 billion to build a state-of-the-art nationwide computer system that will use biometrics to track the comings and goings of visitors to this country.
Hang on to your wallets and a copy of the Bill of Rights.
Congress has mandated that the Department of Homeland Security build and deploy a computer system that can collect and retrieve photographs, fingerprints and related personal data of everyone who lands on these shores.
The DHS in turn has assigned another one of those ponderous acronyms that the government always hangs on all big and expensive projects; this one is the United States Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology, or US-VISIT.
This system is supposed to enable the government to effectively check in and check out every non-citizen on arrival and departure. Presumably the government will also be able to use it to check out and check in every U.S. citizen who visits foreign lands. If it works, US-VISIT will link up federal law enforcement and intelligence databases to automatically identify suspected terrorists or common criminals who are wanted for arrest in the United States or overseas.
The designers are going to have to build massive databases to store and process the biometric data and link them to a variety of existing law enforcement agency databases. This alone will be a remarkable achievement considering that inter-agency rivalries helped ensure information wasnt shared in a highly automated fashion.
In short, building US-VISIT will be like building a new space shuttle from scratch. Delays and cost overruns are a virtual certainty.
The government will deploy US-VISIT in every port of entry in the country, recording and tracking millions of people who land here every year. It will have to work reliably, 24-by-7, to identify malefactors while rapidly processing masses of innocent people who only want to get peaceably on with their vacations or their new lives in the United States.
The problem is that when it comes to connecting biometrics to a global data processing system, nobody knows what is the state of the art. The government is going to have to pay somebody to invent it.
Late last year DHC asked Accenture LLP, Computer Sciences Corp. and Lockheed Martin Corp. to submit bids based on proposals the companies had submitted earlier. The government plans to choose one of these companies to be the lead contractor for US-VISIT by next May.
When the government tells you that it might cost as much as $10 billion to design, build and deploy such a system, increase that figure two or three times because US-VISIT is as complex and risky a project as some of the biggest weapons procurement programs in the countrys history.
Just how risky can be judged from the federal governments atrocious record of trying to deploy modern and efficient data processing systems for fundamental public service agencies, such as the Social Security Administration or the Internal Revenue Service. The record is full of accounts about delays, cost overruns and outright failures in a multitude of government computer procurement programs.
Even with all of the engineering and computer science talent on their payrolls, neither the government nor the contractor candidates can be absolutely certain that they can successfully assemble this system—no matter what they might say publicly.
Sad Fact of History
Some people might say that US-VISIT represents a great opportunity to stretch the capabilities of computer technology. But the reason this opportunity has arisen at all is because more than 2,500 people were murdered in the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
It is a sad fact of history that most of the great advances in science and technology have been achieved only because governments are prepared to spend huge sums to build new weapons and defense systems.
The atomic bomb, nuclear submarines and the nascent U.S. antimissile system are just a few examples of the lengths that the government is prepared to go in the name of national security.
An early successful example of the government harnessing computer technology for national defense is a 1960s era museum piece called SAGE (Semi Automatic Ground Environment) developed by IBM based on research by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It used radar and computer power to allow air defense controllers to track intruding aircraft. It was a precursor of the current civil air traffic control systems used worldwide.
It was also nowhere near as complex as the US-VISIT system.
Even so, it is entirely possible with massive investments of money, time and human resources the government will actually deploy a US-VISIT system that reliably performs what it was designed to do. But that doesnt mean we will be one iota safer from attack by determined terrorists.
If we are very lucky, the nation will somewhat be less blind to terrorist threats than we were before 2001. We will have also paid a heavy price beyond the yet uncounted billions to build the system.
The government will also have an unprecedented capability to track the movements of all of us, citizens and foreigners, the innocent and the criminal.
There was a distant time in this country when we had a right that wasnt written into the Constitution or the Bill of Rights. That was the right of invisibility. If you obeyed the law, paid your taxes, worked and lived quietly at home, you could expect that the government would pay no attention to your comings and goings.
The successful deployment of US-VISIT will mark the final erosion of the invisibility and anonymity that used to be one of the blessings of living in a free society.
Its difficult to decide who deserves more blame for this erosion—the computer system or the terrorist fanatics who seek to destroy our society.
eWEEK.com Enterprise Applications Center Editor John Pallatto is a veteran journalist in the field of enterprise software and Internet technology.