Some 25 foreign nations are planning to require visiting Americans to be fingerprinted, according to a prominent biometrics expert and president of the company that produces the computerized desktop booking stations used by many law enforcement authorities.
The plans to screen American travelers represent a form of retaliation against new U.S. Department of Homeland Security requirements for foreign travelers entering the country, said Joseph J. Atick, president and chief executive officer of Identix, Inc., a biometrics company that won a five-year blanket purchase agreement for its TouchPrint 3000 line fingerprint biometric live scan booking stations and desktop systems, which will be provided to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Atick made the statement at a recent Biometrics Consortium Conference in Virginia.
The CIS anticipates expanding the Application Support Centers Program in 2004 to worldwide operations on up to five continents. The overseas ASC Program will allow biometrics capture for background checks prior to an applicant entering the United States.
WND asked Identix spokesperson Meir Kahtan for a transcript of the address, which reportedly referenced the “25 countries.” Kahtan responded that there was no transcript or audio record available. Dr. Atick’s powerpoint presentation foresees entry/exit systems throughout the world as an significant opportunity for identification management development.
Kahtan did not respond to other WND inquiries about Atick’s comments, including the time frame for implementation of the program and whether Identix was to be the lead provider of equipment for foreign efforts to fingerprint American travelers.
WND asked Nuala O’Connor Kelly, chief privacy officer for Homeland Security, to verify the report. Kelly deferred comment to the DHS press office, adding, “The questions you’re asking call for conjecture about activities that are beyond the scope of DHS’s purview, but that are rather the activities of other countries, and so beyond the scope of my ability to answer.”
Nuala O’Connor Kelly was a moderator at the Biometrics 2003 convention.
On October 29, Homeland Security director Tom Ridge told a Berlin news conference that an agreement between America and Europe on ways to combine fingerprints and facial recognition in travel documents could lead to a global standard.
When asked whether DHS was aware of the plan, spokesman Dennis Murphy told WND, “I’m not personally aware of that,” but added, “I’m not surprised. There’s an ICAO standard for machine-readable passports that need to be linked to biometrics by October 2004. Optical finger scans will be linked to a database.”
When asked whether data collected abroad, including Americans’ travel itineraries and fingerprints, would be shared with U.S. agencies, Murphy deferred to the U.S. State Department, saying, “All that would have to go through State Department protocol and agreements as to which information comes back – if so.”
Atick’s PowerPoint slides from Biometrics 2003 reference “Building and linking databases to uncover identities that could pose a threat,” and include a graphic of a smart-card information being routed through FBI and Interpol databases.
State Department spokesperson Joann Moore would not comment on whether her department or other federal agencies would be able to obtain the data from foreign countries.
About the plan to fingerprint American travelers abroad, Moore said, “Each country has its own regulations on how it processes travelers. That would be up to the countries,” adding, “Maybe we’ll know more when it happens.”
When pressed for more details, Moore said the Bureau of Consular Affairs could give out no more information at this time, “about countries that are considering doing this.”
Lee Tien, senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, isn’t surprised Americans will be fingerprinted – a procedure traditionally reserved for criminals – and warns that employing biometric systems without sufficient attention to their dangers makes them likely to be used in a way that threatens civil liberties.
“When it comes to terrorism versus ordinary crime we have extremely sparse information on terrorism,” Tien said, “There isn’t anything even remotely resembling a solid biometric list of known or suspected terrorists.”
Tien argues that such a system can facilitate the positive identification of someone who is not a terrorist, but adds, “It’s no help with threat identification, where we have all the problems.”
That conclusion was also reached by the General Accounting Office.
Homeland Security’s Murphy contends that biometrics “back up the integrity” of travel documents and prevent alteration of machine-readable passports.
But the EFF argues that a terrorist with a fake passport would be issued a U.S. visa with his own biometric attached to the name on the phony passport.
“Unless the terrorist has already entered his biometrics into the database, and has garnered enough suspicion at the border to merit a full database search, biometrics won’t stop him at the border,” said Tien.
Tien’s organization contends that biometrics do not represent a substitute for quality data about potential risks. No matter how accurately a person is identified, EFF argues, identification alone reveals nothing about whether a person is a terrorist. Such information is completely external to any biometric ID system.
The lack of a well-considered threat model has been a focus of the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s opposition to certain uses of biometrics.
Before deploying any such system on the national stage, EFF emphasizes that a realistic threat model must be obtained, specifying the categories of people such systems are supposed to target, and the threat they pose in light of their abilities, resources, motivations and goals.
“What if the terrorists don’t come in through the checkpoints?” asks Tien. “How hard is it for a dedicated terrorist to get on shore if they want to?”
He adds, that the notoriously porous Mexican border and the exemption of Canada from the program “makes a mockery of the notion that this is for security.”
Although the excuse for exempting Canada was one of practicality vs. commerce concerns arising from feared traffic snarls, Tien chastised the government for failing to conduct adequate cost-benefit analyses.
Even Homeland Security’s Murphy calls the press reports of potential traffic snarls and disrupted commerce along the Canadian border “folklore.”
“It only adds about 4 seconds to processing time, since the document would be swiped as the border guard is asking questions they routinely ask anyway,” explained Murphy.
Ironically, Rep. John M. McHugh, R-NY, recently met with Delegate General Michel Robitaille of Quebec to discuss rising concerns about traffic snarls arising from the Canadian government’s apparent understaffing of New York border crossings, such as crossings at Champlain-Lacolle and Landsdowne.
At Champlain-Lacolle, a recent backlog of cars at the Canadian checkpoint can apparently be attributed to the availability of only one open inspection lane and the low number of Canadian inspection agents stationed at the border. The Canadian government is said to be planning significant upgrades at its border crossings, specifically in Lacolle
In addition to being ineffective and the Canadian-Mexican border leaks, Tien warns of the privacy threats of such a system.
“It becomes very easy to track innocent people,” he said. “The government’s fragmented attempts to address physical security issues are resulting in ‘solutions’ that will be heavily sucking in data about people.”
Political pressure for increasing use of biometrics appears to be informed and driven more by marketing from the biometrics industry than by scientists, EFF asserts.
David Ray, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, supports the program and the fingerprinting of Americans overseas.
“Visiting a country is a privilege, not a right,” Ray said, contending that such checks are a reasonable “cost” of international travel.
Ray is also highly critical of the Canadian exemption though, calling it “very risky.”
“Canada is known as a place where it’s easy to make asylum claims, and where persons with terrorist affiliations reside,” he said.
Asian smuggling rings operating in the Vancouver area, and the possibility of obtaining fake Canadian drivers’ licenses were also cited as concerns.
“We’ve got 9 to 11 million illegal immigrants in the country that we know nothing about,” Ray said, ”There’s been no criminal background check of them, no running of their identities against a terrorist database. US officials are not very interested in detecting and deporting these people.”
“Iraq has more secure borders,” said Ray, “That $87 billion should’ve gone to securing our borders before we spent a dime in Iraq.”
“We don’t seem to be able to lock our own back door. We’ll just be tracking people who want to play by the rules.”
At the Biometrics 2003 conference, Atick noted that the “privacy pendulum” has shifted “over the last two years,” and, that after Sept. 11, 80 percent of people polled supported biometrics and ID cards. He also noted the majority of privacy complaints were with the USA Patriot Act and its alteration of wire-tapping, subpoena and disclosure law.
Looking forward, Atick noted that building certain testing databases “may require changes in law,” and he predicts that identity management with biometrics will keep the industry and government busy for the next decade.
Illustrating the close relationship between the biometrics industry and the U.S. government, Atick pointed out, “Without NSA, DARPA, DOJ, NIST, etc. the biometric industry today would be a decade or two behind.”
So what does the biometrics industry expect from its relationship to government in the future?
According to Atick: “Unwavering commitment to programs despite election-year politics.”