January 17, 2006 3:04 PM PST

Feds aim for more data sharing by terrorist screeners

WASHINGTON--The Bush administration said Tuesday that it would make greater use of what the U.S. government calls "travel intelligence," or methods of linking databases to try to detect terrorists before they travel.

The renewed emphasis on travel intelligence came at an event held here by Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. They also said the federal government would move more toward digitized applications and videoconferencing with visa applicants.

"It is a vital national interest for America to remain a welcoming nation even as we strengthen security in the fight against terrorism," Rice said, echoing remarks by President Bush at a summit for university presidents earlier this month.

"Modern technology," Chertoff added, is a means to meeting that end.

The two federal agencies define travel intelligence as a way to detect "the way suspected terrorists travel." One governmental body that coordinates such data is the Terrorist Screening Center, created as the result of a presidential mandate in 2003.

It's "the spot where all of our information that we're collecting is run through and checked against any kind of watch list or terrorist nexus," said Jarrod Agen, a Homeland Security spokesman.

The center does not collect information of its own. That task belongs to the Terrorist Threat Integration Center, a joint project run by Homeland Security, the Pentagon, the CIA and the FBI.

Instead, the Terrorist Screening Center's database, which contains information about actual or suspected errorists, "simply consolidates information that law enforcement, the intelligence community, the State Department, and others already possess and makes it accessible for query to those who need it--federal security screeners, state and local law enforcement officers, and others," according to a government fact sheet. It's up to individual agencies to decide who can access the data and whose records to make accessible to those screeners.

The government's use of passenger data in various screening programs has been a sore spot in recent years, drawing outcry from privacy advocates. Last year, the Transportation Security Administration took heat from government auditors for failing to disclose exactly how and why it had collected personal information on a quarter of a million airline passengers. It has also been less than forthcoming about a planned prescreening system known as "Secure Flight."

State and Homeland Security screeners already use information culled from visa applications and airline passenger records to compare against watch lists, Agen said, but "as new travel documents are used, we want to continue to keep everyone trained up to the latest information."

By the end of the year, the U.S. government plans to begin issuing only passports with embedded computer chips--a move it says will deter forgers and imposters and reduce wait times at border entry points--even as privacy concerns linger over the tiny radio frequency identification chips they're supposed to contain. The passports' second phase was scheduled to begin this week at San Francisco International Airport.

New visa application procedures
On the welcome-mat front, the officials said their goal is to migrate to an entirely paperless visa application process sometime in the future, though they didn't specify a timetable.

As part of that effort, the State Department plans to test an online application system for business-related visas, though it didn't specify when.

The agency also intends to try out digital videoconferencing in hopes that the technique can one day substitute for in-person interviews with visa applicants. Right now, foreign visa seekers must apply in person at their local consulate, which can sometimes be hundreds of miles away.

At a background briefing after Rice's and Chertoff's speeches, a senior State Department official who did not want to be identified acknowledged that the tactic could create new avenues for fraud. But if upcoming pilot tests conducted in the United Kingdom and other countries show that the technology can be used without introducing new possibilities for fraud, "it could be the biggest qualitative change in the way we handle visas in 150 years," he predicted.

The departments also hope to set up a "Global Enrollment Network"--essentially a single, "secure" database in which both departments, regardless of who collected the information first, could deposit personal information from travel-document applications. Employees of both departments could then access that database in order to verify the identities of travelers arriving at various border entry points.

"The goal is to get information only one time from the applicant," and to reduce line-waiting times for those who pose no threat, "allowing us to focus on the minority of people" who do, Chertoff said.

As for precisely what kind of data would be collected, how it would remain secure and sufficiently private, and how the computer systems would generally operate, "we don't know the answer to all these questions yet," a senior Homeland Security official acknowledged at a background press briefing after the speeches. There are, he added, "a lot of technical details we still need to work out."

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