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.