The government has rejected American offers to upgrade the PISCES border security watch system and decided to replace it with locally-developed software so that “the integrity of data will be secured, as opposed to [when using a] foreign software and database”.
“The government was inflexible on the matter,” and insisted it would develop its own system, said Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) Additional Director-General of Immigration Chaudhry Mohammad Manzoor.
The US provided Pakistan – and 16 other countries including Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen – the Personal Identification, Secure Comparison and Evaluation System (Pisces) in 2002 as part of its Terrorist Interdiction Programme to enable immigration and border control officials to document and identify people exiting and entering the country.
The FIA is currently phasing out Pisces and replacing it with the Integrated Border Management System (IBMS), which is budgeted at Rs421 million. The IBMS software allows the integration of biometric data and to give access to visa-issuing authorities, features which Manzoor said Pisces was missing. Also, the Pisces hardware is expensive to maintain.
But the US offered to upgrade the Pisces software to give it the missing features, as well as to provide the hardware, Manzoor said. “The US repeatedly offered to upgrade PISCES with the government’s requirements, including biometric data,” he said. The offers were turned down.
The US State Department’s budget for the fiscal year 2011-12 featured a $42 million funding request for the upgrade of PISCES in Pakistan and 16 other countries.
A reading of the IBMS project proposal suggests that the government’s rejection of PISCES stems from fears that the database is accessible to the Americans.
The proposal states: “Since the software will be indigenously developed by FIA, the integrity of data will be secured as opposed to foreign software and database, whose source codes are not disclosed to Pakistanis. This will help in maintaining vital data to national security.” It adds: “Due to the sensitive nature of the project, it is imperative that data be secure and administered only by Pakistanis.”
However, the implication in the proposal that the data on PISCES was available to the US is one repeatedly rejected by the government.
“At the time people said that we had given a separate line to the US for PISCES,” said former interior minister Lt Gen (retd) Moinuddin Haider, who was part of the government when the border watch system was installed. “It was never available to them (the US) and was solely for the FIA’s use.”
Manzoor also insisted that neither the US, nor any other country, had access to PISCES data. “We receive requests from embassies and we send them specific entries,” he said of how information was shared.
Indeed, the FIA has no way of sharing the data even with domestic law enforcement agencies, which should be considered a vital component of a national counter-terrorism strategy. However, IBMS data will be available to intelligence agencies. “They will have read-only access so they cannot manipulate the data,” Manzoor said. Asked if the data could also be shared with law enforcement agencies, he said: “They haven’t asked for it, but it is possible.”
Haider said PISCES had been “very beneficial”. He recalled that the government had asked the US “to help install a state-of-the-art system for checking people who were exiting and entering the country. Earlier, the FIA would manually check boarding cards.”
The success of IBMS – currently under trial at Islamabad airport – compared to the tried-and-tested PISCES will be gauged once it is fully implemented. IBMS will replace PISCES at the Karachi and Peshawar airports this June.
In response to a query, the US Embassy in Islamabad spokesperson said, “There is no one at the Embassy who runs the TIP/PISCES programme. The Department of State provides support from Washington but the programme here is run by the interior ministry.”
Praise for Pisces
According to a 2003 analysis report on Pakistan–US anti-terrorism cooperation submitted to the US Congress, PISCES software “is said to make real-time comparisons of photographs and other personal details with the Federal Bureau of Investigation database in order to track the movements of Islamic militants. The ultimate aim is to monitor travellers entering or leaving Pakistan at all 18 major transit points”.
According to US State Department website, the software “provided photos and travel history to Pakistan of three of the four July 7, 2005 London Tube bombers.
Hundreds of travellers have been interdicted in Pakistan on suspicion of using stolen passports.”
Meanwhile, Interior Minister Rehman Malik said the following during a National Assembly question and answer session on August
“Installation of PISCES has not only made (the) immigration process swift, but it provides a filter for the movement of passengers having restrictions. In the first quarter of 2009, 196 passengers belonging to different categories were checked with the help of this system.”
Published in The Express Tribune, June 8th, 2011.