GAO: DHS Blowing Upgrade of Obsolete Border Control Computers


Border Patrol
U.S. Government

Among people who think the federal government should be entrusted to do something, controlling and defending the borders features pretty high on the list. The interpretation of what that entails and how tight such control should be varies, but even for limited-government folks, making sure the U.S. border is more than a line on a map is seen as something of a core function for that big bureaucracy occupying the swampland that either Maryland nor Virginia wanted.But we're talking about government, here. And according to the Government Accountability Office, not only has the Department of Homeland Security been relying on increasingly archaic (read: freaking ancient) and ineffective (read: can't do what?) computer technology to monitor comings and goings across the border, it's making an expensive balls-up of finally replacing that system.

Yesterday, David A. Powner, GAO's Director of Information Technology Management Issues, described the existing system to the House Committee on Homeland Security's Subcommittee on Oversight and Management Efficiency:

TECS is an information technology (IT) and data management system that supports DHS's core border enforcement mission. According to CBP, it is one of the largest, most important law enforcement systems currently in use, and is the primary system available to CBP officers and agents from other departments for use in determining the admissibility of persons wishing to enter the country. … 

This mainframe-based system dates back to the 1980s and interfaces with over 80 other systems from within DHS, other federal departments and their component agencies, as well as state, local, and foreign governments.

So TECS plays a major role in Customs and Border Protection's doings, and if it was any older, it would have a crank on the side. It also has some limitations.

The current TECS system uses obsolete technology, which combined with expanding mission requirements, have posed operational challenges for CBP and others. For example, users may need to access and navigate among several different systems to investigate, resolve, and document an encounter with a passenger. In addition, CBP identified that TECS's search algorithms do not adequately match names from foreign alphabets. TECS's obsolescence also makes it difficult and expensive to maintain and support. Specifically, DHS estimates that TECS's licensing and maintenance costs are expected to be $40 million to $60 million per year in 2015.

Wait… "TECS's search algorithms do not adequately match names from foreign alphabets"? It's a good thing we don't have any ongoing tensions with folks from places that use different writing systems.

Oh. Whoopsies.

So, if the feds are going to do their border-control thing, it looks like it's time to replace TECS, right?

But…This is the federal government. And the GAO report that Powner presented to the subcommittee is a bit of a downer on this point. That report says, "The schedule and cost for the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) border enforcement system modernization program known as TECS Mod that is managed by Customs and Border Protection's (CBP) continue to change; while the part managed in parallel by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is undergoing major revisions to its scope, schedule, and cost after discovering that its initial solution is not technically viable."

Specifically, CBP is spending $724 million to update its system, but it just changed its schedule for doing so for the second time in less than a year. And the GAO doubts the revised schedule will be met because it says CBP can't reliably manage work activities or monitor program progress.

And that's just CBP. ICE is "redesigning and replanning" its $818 million program after realizing that the original plan couldn't work. Actually, ICE's efforts appear to be dead in the water while it works up a whole new set of plans and budget to match.

Considering that nothing is going according to schedule or plan, you can probably assume that the $1.5 billion allocated for this computer-upgrade effort is going to be exceeded, just a bit, in the end. Whether a functioning system will ultimately result is anybody's guess.