SFO immigration system down: US closed for business

SFO is normally very efficient and friendly. You get off an 11 hour flight, walk a relatively short distance by LHR T5 standards, turn the corner and you see the bank of immigration desks with no more than 5 people at each desk and no real line. I can normally be off the flight which arrives at 2pm, be through immigration onto the BART and into my office in downtown San Francisco by 3pm.

Yesterday was different. I rounded the corner and thought I was in Miami or Newark. A HUGE line of people. Not a problem as SFO Immigration is very efficient. But after 10 minutes when the line had not moved at all, clearly something else was happening.

The immigration system had gone down. So no ability to check passport information, ESTAs, take fingerprints or photographs; in fact all the border controls. Without the system there were 2 options; ignore the system and let ANYBODY into the country, or close the border. Perhaps the system had been taken down maliciously to try and allow terrorists or illegal aliens into the country?

They chose option 2 whilst they initiated the fail-over plan.

The immigration officials were deeply embarrassed about the delay and couldn’t apologise more; having an E2 visa gains a great deal of respect. The problem was their fail-over plan involved installing a CD and working locally.

However, the CDs wouldn’t work in all but 2 of the desks. Those that managed to install it didn’t have the encryption code. No one had been trained in the manual processes.

So the border stayed closed.

That, bizzarrely, was probably the best answer for us in the line. Because if they had managed to initiate the fail-over plan with manual processing, what were the odds of the data being transferred accurately when the main system was back on-line? Most people forget the ‘restore to normal operation’ processes. We would be potentially walking around with I94 forms in our passports which had never been registered and this could look like we had entered the USA illegally and forged an I94. Not a situation I want to find myself in.

So the Homeland Security system, VISIT system was put in at a HUGE cost to the US taxpayer. To be exact a $10bn contract was awarded to Accenture to provide it. So let me hazard a guess. None of the $10bn was allocated to documenting and providing the processes for the immigration officials to follow; certainly none of the fail-over and restore processes.

Still the alternative option is far cheaper. Stop people coming into the country.

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Ian Gotts is CEO and Chairman of Nimbus Partners, an established and rapidly growing global software company, headquartered in the UK. He is a very experienced senior executive and serial entrepreneur, with a career spanning 25 years. Ian has co-authored a number of books including “Common Approach, Uncommon Results”, published in English and Chinese and in its second edition, "Why Killer Products Don't Sell" and books covering Cloud computing from the perspective of both the prospective buyer, and the software vendor. Having begun his career in 1983 as an engineer for British Rail, Ian then spent 12 years at Accenture (nee Andersen Consulting) specialising in the project management of major business critical IT projects. During this time, he spent two years as an IT Director, seconded to the Department for Social Security (DSS), with a department of over 500 and a budget responsibility of 40 million pounds.