PHOTOS COURTESY OF U.S. COAST GUARD
United States Coast Guard cutter Key Largo on patrol in the Mona Passage
BY CAROL HILDEBRAND
IT was one of those programs that seemed destined for choppy waters. Two U.S. government agencies were involved. Major IT issues were at play. And then there was the small matter of national security to consider.
The problem lay in the Mona Passage. The strait, which connects the Atlantic Ocean to the Caribbean Sea, is known for rough waters that make traversing it dangerous. Yet its location between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic made the waterway a hotspot for smugglers transporting migrants to the United States on rickety boats called yolas.
Crewmembers on U.S. Coast Guard cutters charged with manning the waters knew what was happening—but didn't have many options.
“We couldn't prosecute if we couldn't determine identity, and smugglers threw documents overboard,” says Paul Hunter, deputy director at the Office of Information Technology's Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative Program in Customs and Border Protection at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Washington, D.C., USA.
Each agency within the Department of Homeland Security has its own mission, and you have to have a solid business case to go across boundaries.
—PAUL HUNTER, DEPARTMENT OF HOMELAND SECURITY, WASHINGTON, D.C., USA
Knowing they faced few, if any, repercussions, smugglers kept packing people into yolas to make the precarious journey.
That meant the Coast Guard was essentially left to act as a “ferry system” for illegal migrants. Crewmembers had no knowledge of who the migrants were—all the Coast Guard could do was confirm they came from the Dominican Republic and return them to their homeland.
“It was such a joke that smugglers would recognize and greet the people on the cutters,” Mr. Hunter says.
That all changed with the launch of the Biometrics at Sea program. Using wireless technology, the Coast Guard can now fingerprint and photograph migrants and smugglers interdicted on the yolas. Crewmembers then check the prints via satellite against the databases in the DHS' U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology (US-VISIT) program, which collects fingerprints from nearly every foreign visitor to the United States. That meant the Coast Guard could immediately identify repeat offenders, any known criminals or possible terrorists.
Of course, arranging for the Coast Guard to actually gain access to the US-VISIT information would be a lesson in collaboration and compromise.
“Each agency within the DHS has its own mission, and you have to have a solid business case to go across boundaries,” Mr. Hunter says. “But we were motivated in that we were actually going to save lives. Yolas were turning over, and people were dying.”
Thomas L. Amerson, Ph.D., the Coast Guard's project manager for the Biometrics at Sea program, credits Mr. Hunter with pulling a disparate team together on the DHS side.
“He was able to get it so that there was no jockeying for position,” says Dr. Amerson, research psychologist at the U.S. Coast Guard Research & Development Center, Groton, Connecticut, USA. “People weren't looking for opportunities. They were looking for how to solve the problem, and it took tremendous skill to bring the teams together.”
ON THE WATER
Both the Coast Guard and US-VISIT program managers recognized the value each brought to the table and set up the program to maximize skills while respecting each group's methods and goals.
“We needed to make sure that we had a climate that would support our work together,” says Dr. Amerson. “My team had to build the collection part of the systems and work with data transmission, and [Mr. Hunter's] team had to work with fingerprint matching and the enrollment part of the system. Once we figured out how to come together to make this work, there was no competition, and plenty of work to do in our own areas.”
The team started by conducting a rigorous user wants and needs analysis, which gave them a clear idea of the challenging conditions aboard the cutters. As part of the process, Dr. Amerson and Mr. Hunter went aboard vessels in the Mona Passage.
“Most of the work interdicting illegal migrants is done at night,” says Dr. Amerson. “It can be raining, with 6- or 7-foot [1.8- to 2.1-meter] waves. I've been on deck doing biometrics testing where, because of the wave and swell action, I was thrown into the air. How do you get a decent set of prints in such conditions? It really gave us all a good understanding of what the Coast Guard needed and, as we understood it, really helped us come together as a team.”
Mr. Hunter and Dr. Amerson created an integrated team drawing members from the Coast Guard, US-VISIT, U.S. Customs and Border Protection as well as contractors, including SAIC and Accenture, among others. The team met biweekly at US-VISIT offices, using structured program management practices, including risk management, scheduling, cost control and quality plans.
To keep the team on track, the program leads split off operational technology groups and had them meet separately.
Dr. Amerson's group dealt with finding a suitable handheld biometric device, while Mr. Hunter's focused on building a program that allowed the handheld device to build files compatible with the US-VISIT databases.
After an interdiction of a yola in the Mona Passage, the United States Coast Guard cutter Key Largo embarks migrants.
DAYS AT SEA
Biometrics at Sea program launched
User wants and needs assessment conducted
Formal sponsorship and funding of program
Pilot system architecture designed
System using data extract goes live
System using satellite access to full fingerprint database goes live
System expanded to Florida Straits
Moving the technology issues out of the policy and administrative meetings was one of the best things the team did, Dr. Amerson says.
“Before that, questions that were technical in nature ran into people whose strength was not technology but policy—and vice versa,” he explains. “Everything being said had value, but it was the wrong conversation with the wrong group. We had to make sure that problem-solving was directed to the right group and the right problem.”
One such challenge came when the groups started to wrestle with the task of ensuring images created from the handheld were up to US-VISIT's quality standards. “It's one thing to have a biometric device, but if you're collecting garbage, you can't use it,” says Mr. Hunter.
People weren't looking for opportunities. They were looking for how to solve the problem, and it took tremendous skill to bring the teams together.
—THOMAS L. AMERSON, Ph.D., U.S. COAST GUARD RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT CENTER, GROTON, CONNECTICUT, USA
So the team turned to the experts: the users of IDENT, the U.S. government's primary biometric database. “The IDENT user community is pretty big. It encompasses most, if not all, of the 22 agencies in the DHS as well as groups such as the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation and state and local police communities,” says Mr. Hunter. “We talked to representatives to make sure our standards and quality were correct.”
The trust and working relationships within the team were put to their biggest test when the group tackled the issue of data access. The Coast Guard's cutters didn't have satellite communications devices on board, making it impossible to send and receive biometric data to US-VISIT's database of 90 million prints. The Coast Guard proposed obtaining a data extract of about 800,000 known criminals and downloading that to a laptop. Crewmembers could then compare fingerprinted migrants and smugglers and catch the worst offenders.
“[DHS] had the data and the Coast Guard thought, ‘It's easy, just give us the data on a laptop.’ But it's not that easy,” says Mr. Hunter. “The database is huge, and it's not all bad guys—the vast majority are good people. It was our number one priority to protect their privacy.”
Instead of locking in to their respective positions, each side listened and took action. “[DHS] had never let that biometric data outside its walls, and it was a risk that caused a great deal of concern,” says Dr. Amerson.
To minimize that risk, the Coast Guard command ordered that the data was to be treated like classified information, with the corresponding level of security.
“The Coast Guard understood DHS' concerns and we provided a plan and standard operating procedures for how and where the biometrics equipment was to be used for DHS' approval,” says Dr. Amerson.
He even took the US-VISIT team aboard a cutter to demonstrate the safety measures.
The field trip worked.
“The security is incredible,” says Mr. Hunter. “A cutter is self-monitored 24/7 with top-level physical and technical security.”
The US-VISIT group consented to using data extracts—but only for a limited period of time. In exchange, the Coast Guard reprioritized its communications upgrades to get the Mona Passage cutters satellite-ready.
“It was really a diplomatic task,” says Mr. Hunter. “From the start, we had to have full connectivity to make this fully happen. The collaboration and negotiation between the Coast Guard and US-VISIT allowed us to give them a finite date for going to full satellite communication, and they did. The Coast Guard was fantastic about listening and taking privacy as the number one priority.”
The program's first phase, which used the extracted data, launched in November 2006, ahead of the original deadline of late December and with money to spare. “It was budgeted for $500,000 and came in at $375,000,” says Mr. Hunter.
The program posted immediate results. “In the first week we caught an incredible amount of people,” says Mr. Hunter. On the first 16 yolas the Coast Guard intercepted, there were 407 migrants—and 17 of them were brought ashore for prosecution. The previous year, there had been zero prosecutions.
The Coast Guard finished outfitting the cutters with satellite communications equipment the following February. Phase two, which gave the cutters satellite access to the full fingerprint database, went live at the end of May 2007.
There were some initial fears about using the new equipment and having no data directly on board. The plan was that if it didn't work, the Coast Guard would reassess the situation, but “we never went back,” Dr. Amerson says.
As smugglers and a succession of criminals—“some serious bad guys,” according to Mr. Hunter—were caught and prosecuted, the Coast Guard saw a significant drop in interdictions.
In the year before the Biometrics at Sea program debuted, the Coast Guard interdicted approximately 4,000 migrants who were then taken back to the Dominican Republic. The next year, that number dropped to roughly 1,440, says Dr. Amerson.
“As soon as smugglers were in jail, they realized the consequences and warned their friends in the Dominican,” he says. “In short, the cost of business was going up.”
A crewmember captures biometrics onboard the United States Coast Guard cutter Matinicus.
Since the program began in November 2006, it has collected biometric data from 1,745 migrants, prosecuted 130 of those people and helped slash the flow of illegal migration by nearly 50 percent.
The number of migrants the United States Coast Guard has collected data from under the Biometrics at Sea program
Those kinds of numbers led to an expansion of the Biometrics at Sea program to the Florida Straits (located southeast of the North American mainland). In late March, Dr. Amerson's team finished training 165 people there.
The result is a true testament to teamwork, says Commander Gregory A. Buxa, the project officer on the Coast Guard side and now the executive officer of the U.S. Coast Guard Air Station Sacramento in McClellan, California, USA. “We were getting thousands of people coming through the Mona Pass each year and now it's down to a trickle—just a great project overall.”
But without cooperation and trust, the Biometrics at Sea might have never made it into port.
“There was a lot of communication and collaboration and a lot of negotiations,” Mr. Hunter says. “And that's really what it boils down to.” PM
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