Winners and losers
Tough decisions await DHS as it picks technologies to run its systems
- By Alice Lipowicz
- Feb 09, 2007
The Homeland Security Department aims to be a smart technology shopper. But what's to save it from emulating those consumers who stocked up on Beta Max videotapes just before everyone switched to VHS?
It's not a hypothetical question. A bad choice could cost the agency millions. And selecting a second-rate technology could punch a hole in the nation's security blanket.
Current skirmishes among homeland security technology formats are just as real, just as messy and in some cases, likely to be just as expensive as are consumer-driven battles for market dominance.
"Picking winners and losers in technology is a chancy thing," said James Jay Carafano, senior research fellow for defense and homeland security at the Heritage Foundation think tank in Washington.
The department has had hits and misses. For example, U.S. Visit, a huge computer system that collects and records biometric information upon entry of all foreign visitors, was up and running within a relatively short time because it predominantly uses existing IT systems. An early decision that sped implementation was to use only two fingerprints.
But U.S. Visit has begun, three years after initial implementation, to collect 10 fingerprints to align with Justice Department systems. It also is considering giving up, at least temporarily, the goal of tracking visitor exits, claiming appropriate technology won't be available for five to 10 years.
Track records for other major DHS programs such as the People Access Security Services (Pass) border-crossing card and the Transportation Workers Identification Credential (TWIC) show a similar variety of technology format concerns, changing goals and evolving standards.
In the upcoming Secure Border Initiative Network surveillance system, won by Boeing Co., procurement officials address some of those challenges by focusing first on a limited geographic area as a proving ground.
DHS deputy secretary Michael Jackson, announcing the award, said Boeing will have to prove it has the best solution in the initial 28-mile section near Tucson, Arizona. Networking the entire border will require "flexibility" and "not a cookie-cutter approach," Jackson said.
Pick me! Pick me!
DHS faces a minefield of additional choices for multiple other programs, including computers vs. radios, Internet vs. satellite, wired vs. wireless, high bandwidth vs. low bandwidth and radio-frequency identification tags vs. smart cards. Picking the right technologies is one of the department's most important mandates, but except among industry groups, that decision-making process gets little attention.
Experts said there is no foolproof method to overcome all the uncertainties.
"Sometimes [DHS] may pick technologies that may have more growth potential, or it could be like picking Beta or VHS, oranges or apples, Coke or Pepsi," Carafano said. "There is this enormous pressure to move forward and a tendency to go with more safe and readily deployable technology, rather than go with something that might be better five to 10 years from now."
Carafano cautioned against believing in a "myth" of always picking the perfect solution. Often, with many technologies available in an early stage of development, such as RFID used for identification cards, "all the choices are in the ballpark," he said.
Homeland Security officials pick technology winners and losers all the time. For the TWIC biometric smart card, three years in the making, officials early on opted for a computer chip to hold data on the smart card, rejecting the optical memory strip. Many months later, shipyard concerns arose over the one in 100 error rate inherent in the computer chips.
An even greater format war developed over contact vs. contactless interfaces in the readers. Port operators protested the requirement for a contact reader, saying it would degrade quickly in the salty, windy marine environment.
Because of the controversy, TWIC cards will be issued initially without readers to read them. On Jan. 29, Lockheed Martin Corp. won a $70 million contract to begin enrolling users and issuing cards. A panel of industry and maritime officials are meeting to specify requirements for contactless readers. But will the initial round of TWIC cards have to be replaced to meet the new requirements? "The intent is for this to be an update to the cards, not a reissue," said Walter Hamilton, a member of the TWIC advisory group and chairman of the International Biometric Industry Association.
The Pass card, a biometric ID card for use by U.S., Canadian and Mexican citizens who frequently cross U.S. borders, also kicked up dust. The American Electronics Association and the Smart Card Industry Alliance advocated use of a smart card, which requires a close read ? within inches of a reader. DHS instead chose to use ultra-high frequency RFID tags, which can be read at distances of about 20 feet. To protect privacy, the tags will emit only a number that must be checked against a DHS database.
Is that folly, or innovation? "It's not over yet," said Randy Vanderhoof, president of the alliance. "I suspect there could be further evaluation."
DHS' decision is consistent with the typical path of technology evolution, in which existing technologies are put to new uses, said Jennifer Kerber, homeland security director for the Information Technology Association of America, a trade group. "RFID is not new, but this is going beyond supply chain management. As with any kind of new technology, you have policy questions."
While some critics say DHS should be advising communities more aggressively on technology decisions and pointing the way toward national interoperability, others say the new digital technologies are too new.
"You still have a large number of people saying voice over IP will never be redundant and reliable enough for public safety," said Charles Werner,
fire chief for Charlottesville, Va., and a member of a panel advising DHS on interoperability.
"I'm a little more optimistic," Werner said. "As the VoiP infrastructure continues to expand, it probably will be more robust and less expensive. But you have to prove it to people."
Staff Writer Alice Lipowicz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.