- The Washington Times - Monday, January 5, 2004

Karen Moscrop is not a criminal, but the British citizen still was electronically fingerprinted and digitally photographed when she arrived yesterday at Washington Dulles International Airport.

“It felt odd,” said Mrs. Moscrop, who lives in Hyattsville with her husband. But she described the experience upon her return from London as “very easy, very unobtrusive.”

Mrs. Moscrop was one of the first foreigners to have her biometric information captured as part of the United States Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology (US-VISIT) program that began yesterday at 115 international airports and 14 seaports.

The program will allow security officials to instantly check fingerprints and photographs of foreigners entering the United States against watch lists for terrorists and a national criminal database.

Homeland Security Department chief Tom Ridge said US-VISIT will be used to “keep our borders open and our nation secure.”

“Unfortunately, some people have sought to take advantage of our open arms and welcoming shores, so we must continue to protect our citizens and visitors from those who wish us harm,” Mr. Ridge said. The announcement was made at the Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta, where the technology was tested in November.

International response appeared cooperative, with the exception of Brazil, which imposed similar security measures on Americans under the order of a judge who said the U.S. action was “worthy of the worst horrors committed by the Nazis.”

By fingerprinting Brazilian citizens, the United States was “threatening human rights, violating human dignity, xenophobic and worthy of the worst horrors committed by the Nazis,” Judge Julier Sebastiao da Silva said.

More than 24 million passengers annually with visitor visas can expect at least a one-minute delay to verify their identity, which entails pressing their index fingers onto an inkless scanner and having their photograph taken during customs inspections.

Passport holders from Japan, Australia, and many European countries initially are exempt from the new security standards. Those 27 countries, whose citizens are allowed to come to the United States for up to 90 days without visas, have until Oct. 26 to produce machine-readable, tamper-resistant passports that meet specific biometric standards.

“Requests from abroad brought to our attention that many countries did not have the ability to create those passports by October 30, 2003, so the deadline was extended to allow individuals to get new passports,” said Bill Strausburger, spokesman for the Transportation Security Administration.

Those passengers now are subject to advanced passenger-information screening, and names are provided to U.S. law-enforcement officials before the plane lands in the United States. This advanced screening has led to the cancellation of seven U.S.-bound flights since Christmas Eve because of security concerns: three from France, two from Britain and two from Mexico.

Canadian citizens also are exempt from the biometrics program under an existing agreement, and Mexicans can travel visa-free for up to three days in some cases.

The program was mandated originally by Congress as part of an immigration entry-exit program in 1996 but was expanded after the September 11 attacks through the Patriot Act to include biometrics identification verification.

US-VISIT must be installed at 50 of the busiest land-border entry points by the end of this year and all border entrances by 2005.

In addition to background checks, the recorded information will track the arrival and departure of visitors and flag those who overstay their departure. A corresponding check-out program will soon undergo testing at Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

That information will be used to block illegal aliens from applying and receiving federal benefits available to legal immigrants, and can bar them from re-entering the country on other visits.

Although Mrs. Moscrop, whose visa status warranted her participation in the program, accepts the need for tighter border security, she is concerned about what the government will do with her personal information. “I just hope it doesn’t get abused in any way,” she said.

Shobhani Single of India assented to the biometric screening but also had privacy concerns.”I don’t know what is going to happen with my fingerprints and photographs. I don’t know how they are going to manage it,” she said.

The American Civil Liberties Union voiced concern over the fact that US-VISIT’s privacy policy was not made public until after the system went on line yesterday. The travel data is supposed to be stored securely and released only to authorized officials on a need-to-know basis.

Timothy Edgar, ACLU legislative counsel, said his organization is concerned over how long the information will be kept on file and says there is the potential for misuse.

“Information collected for one purpose can be misused for another that has nothing to do with law enforcement or immigration laws,” Mr. Edgar said.

Presidential candidate Bill Clinton’s travel to Russia became an issue in the 1992 campaign, and supporters believe the information came from an unauthorized look at his visa file, he said.

“A future Homeland Security Chief Hillary Rodham Clinton could keep tabs on who is coming into this country for abortion protests. We need to know what guidelines are in place” to secure record privacy, Mr. Edgar said.

The TSA’s Mr. Strausburger called the Brazilian judge’s Nazi analogy “absurd” and said privacy concerns will be taken into account.

“If anything, we are trying to ensure the safety of our country while keeping our borders open and welcoming people. His Nazi comment is not worthy of any response,” Mr. Strausburger said.

The U.S. Embassy in Brasilia also protested the judge’s remarks.

The program did win an early vote of confidence from a leading Muslim advocacy group in the United States.

Faiz Rehman, president of the National Council of Pakistani Americans, said the system was fairer than other laws that have required Pakistanis and other nationals from Muslim nations to register with the authorities.

“The new fingerprint program is less discriminatory, which does not just target Muslim visitors. It is clearly not anti-immigrants,” he said. “We hope the new program will be as visitor-friendly as it is promised to be.”

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