- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 15, 2006

U.S. border officials will soon be able to screen all foreign visitors against databases of latent fingerprints left by terrorists on weapons or in safe houses, according to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.

Mr. Chertoff said at a meeting of technology vendors this week that the coming deployment of 10-digit fingerprint readers at U.S. consulates and ports of entry was “exactly the kind of 21st-century tool that will give us a measure of protection at our borders that has never been dreamed of in the history of this country.”

He said the new fingerprint readers, which will replace the existing two-fingerprint scanners starting next year, would allow foreign visitors and visa applicants to be checked “not only against our existing databases to see whether they have been here before under a different name or whether there is a criminal record in this country or internationally against them,” but also “against latent prints lifted from around the world in terrorist safe houses or on battlefields.”

But he warned that the technology to realize the vision of a seamless biometric border — and the interoperable databases that would enable state and local police to check the immigration status and history of anyone they arrest — was not yet ready for prime time.

“The job is not yet done. We’re just at the beginning in terms of making sure we have actually operationally viable 10-print capture equipment that can be used in the kind of rushed environment that, frankly, we face at our ports of entry,” he said.

The United States currently uses inkless digital finger scanners to check two prints to confirm the identity of every foreigner applying for a visa, arriving at an air or sea port, or presenting a visa at a land border — a system dubbed US-VISIT, for Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology.

Mr. Chertoff said the switch to 10-print technology will take US-VISIT “to the next level, to get the unknown threat as well as the known threat,” and bring the department’s immigration fingerprint database closer to compatibility with the national law-enforcement fingerprint database.

Critics charge that US-VISIT is crippled by the absence of a comprehensive exit portion. Although everyone’s arrival is cataloged, there is no systematic collection of biometric data from visitors leaving — thus no way of flagging a warning for those who overstay their visas, for example.

Despite a series of pilot programs initiated over almost three years, the Department of Homeland Security has yet to work out how to make sure people register as they leave.

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