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US-VISIT Advances in Biometrics Tighten Border Security

US-VISIT gave its 8th annual briefing at its headquarters in Rosslyn Thursday afternoon, and the progress there continues to be impressive. While the advances in biometrics raise some delicate privacy questions, the United States is getting ever closer to creating a system in which it will be more or less impossible to lie one’s way into this country through the legal ports of entry. And more and more countries – sixty-one at last count – are going down the same road of using biometrics for border control.

Three headlines from the excellent briefing by US-VISIT Director Bob Mocny:

1) DHS has pilot-tested, and by the end of 2012 will have rolled out to all entry ports, a new “rapid response” capability that automatically checks the fingerprints of incoming travelers against the FBI’s full data base of fingerprints. That means that anyone with an arrest record in the U.S. will be identified when trying to enter the country. This is an enormous expansion of capability. Fingerprints collected under US-VISIT are currently checked against a watch list of known and suspected terrorists and serious criminals that contains about 6 million identities. The FBI data base holds 67 million identities, a 10-fold increase.

2) DHS is making huge advances in using biographic data under the ADIS system to identify visa overstayers. Embassies abroad, and CBP officers at the ports, are now being supplied with a list of those with egregious records of overstaying, either for long periods or on multiple occasions. Foreign travelers with a history of violating visa terms will soon find they can no longer get visas. And to the extent that ICE resources permit, DHS will be able to identify and track down those who overstayed visas and are still in the country. In the debates over border security, one often hears the claim that some 40 percent of illegal immigrants in the United States are visa overstayers. While that estimate may or may not be true currently, in the future, that number will certainly shrink dramatically because of the new procedures.

3) US-VISIT has been pilot-testing facial and iris recognition technology at the border entry in McAllen, Texas. If the technology continues to develop, and is cost-efficient to deploy, it will be possible sometime in the future to speed travelers through without even forcing them to stop briefly to give digital fingerprints.

A note of caution is in order, however. These advances are so significant that DHS and the State Department need to launch a new overseas public information campaign telling travelers what is in store, much as was done when the US-VISIT system was first launched in 2003.

To take one very plausible scenario: the FBI criminal database contains records of anyone “arrested,” not just those who were actually convicted of a crime. It is quite plausible that a perfectly respectable frequent traveler – say the chief executive of a big foreign multinational with large investments in the United States – could at some point in his or her life have been arrested here on suspicion of something. Even if the charge was dropped, that individual will be flagged on entry. And if he or she answered “no” to the question of whether they had ever been arrested (perhaps believing erroneously that arrest equals conviction), then they could be barred from entry for lying on a visa application.

To avoid exactly the sort of embarrassing newspaper stories that I and my colleagues have written so many times, the United States needs to warn foreign travelers that it’s a new world out there.

Edward Alden blogs on border security, visa policy and immigration issues. Read More