GAO: DHS Mismanaging Upgrades to ‘Vital’ Border Enforcement System

Border security database cannot ‘match names from foreign alphabets’

Border Patrol agents in McAllen, Texas / AP
• February 6, 2014 5:30 pm


The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is mismanaging an upgrade to its vital border security computer database that tracks who is eligible to enter the United States, according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

GAO’s Director of Information Technology Management Issues David A. Powner testified before a House homeland security subcommittee on Thursday, regarding millions in waste and failures by DHS to meet deadlines for upgrading its primary border enforcement system.

TECS is the DHS system responsible for "sharing information about people who are inadmissible or may pose a threat to the security of the United States." The program has been used since the 1980s to prevent terrorism and provide border security, but currently relies on "obsolete technology" that cannot "match names from foreign alphabets."

DHS began modernizing the database in 2008, with plans to complete its upgrades by September 2015. Management failures, however, make it unlikely that deadline will be met.

Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) are each responsible for separate TECS enhancements, though neither have had much success.

ICE has "operated without requirements management guidance for years," and is in "serious jeopardy of not meeting the 2015 deadline," while CBP cannot "effectively manage work activities or monitor the program’s progress."

"After spending nearly a quarter billion dollars and over 4 years on its two TECS Mod programs, it remains unclear when DHS will deliver them and at what cost," Powner said.

CBP has only delivered one of five major projects it has been tasked with, and has not fully developed a master schedule necessary for oversight. ICE wasted $19 million creating a system that was riddled with IT problems, before deciding to "scrap" it and start over.

"ICE determined that, after spending approximately $19 million, the system under development could not be fielded as part of ICE’s eventual solution due to ongoing technical difficulties with the user interface, access controls, and case-related data management," Powner said. "Instead of continuing with the existing technical solution, the program manager explained that ICE would scrap a significant portion of the work done to date and start over."

"With the speed with which technology advances today, it shouldn’t take DHS eight years to complete an IT project," said Subcommittee on Oversight and Management Efficiency Chairman Jeff Duncan (R., S.C.). "Private sector CEOs likely wouldn’t tolerate such poor performance and management. Neither should DHS."

"It’s an affront to the American taxpayer and it’s time for DHS to do better," he said.

Overall, the program has a baseline budget of $1.542 billion, which is split between CBP ($724 million) and ICE ($818 million). However, Powner said it is "unclear" how much the program will ultimately cost.

CBP has spent $226 million as of August 2013, but is currently "in the process of revising its estimate." ICE is "replanning" its $818 million, "having determined in June 2013 that the system under development was not technically viable and could not support ICE’s needs."

The TECS program is in dire need of upgrades. The database uses "obsolete technology," which poses "operational challenges" for CBP agents who use TECS to investigate and document encounters at U.S. borders.

Search algorithms for the system currently "do not adequately match names from foreign alphabets."

Seventy thousand officials use the system, screening over 900,000 visitors and 465,000 vehicles per day.

Upgrades that have yet to be completed include enhancing "search algorithms to better match names from foreign alphabets," and addressing "gaps in current processes that could result in missing a person of interest."

TECS also needs to be modernized to "improve CBP’s ability to query and validate" travel documents.

"It is important that the programs fully implement these critical practices to help ensure that they deliver the functionally needed to meet mission requirements and minimize the potential for additional costly rework," Powner said.

"The importance of having updated cost and schedule estimates for both the CBP and ICE programs cannot be understated, as this important management information will provide Congress and DHS with visibility into the performance of these vital border security investments," he said.