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U.S.: Fingerprinting Scheme Launched For Incoming Foreigners

Starting today, U.S. authorities will begin photographing and fingerprinting foreigners entering the country by air or sea. The new security measures apply to visitors from all but 28 mainly European states. Will this latest initiative mean a step ahead in the war against terror, as U.S. officials have claimed, or will it further isolate the country from the rest of the world? Brazil last week responded by enacting a reciprocal procedure for Americans entering its territory -- are more countries to do the same?

Prague, 5 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- It's called VISIT, or Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology. Implemented by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, it will apply to an estimated 24 million non-Americans crossing the country's borders every year.

Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge announced the program today during a news conference at Hartsfield International Airport in Atlanta, Georgia. "Starting today, we are introducing this critical new technology at 115 airports around the country, as well as in cruise-ship terminals at 14 U.S. sea ports," he said. "It is part of a comprehensive program to ensure that our borders remain open to visitors but closed to terrorists."

The new procedure extends to all nations with whom the United States has a visa regime. Exempt from the process are nationals from most European countries as well as Canada, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, and Brunei.

The procedure adds two additional biometric measures to the usual border and customs obligations -- inkless fingerprinting and digital photography to be used with facial-recognition software and compared against millions of database images.

Officials say the new measure will add just 10 or 15 seconds to a traveler's border procedure once screeners become proficient. But proponents argue that the extra step will tighten U.S. security and help improve visa-regime maintenance for both incoming and outgoing foreigners.

Asa Hutchinson, Ridge's undersecretary for border and transportation security, said: "This system that we are implementing will be found by our foreign guests to be something that is inoffensive, that is easy, that is quick. But that will give them a confidence that our transportation systems will be safe and that as they enter the United States they will not be entering with other people that might pose a danger."

U.S. officials say the system has a margin of error of less than 0.1 percent, and that human safeguards are also in place to ensure that innocent travelers are not unjustly turned away. But the measure has already met with a sour reception in a number of the countries affected by the change.

Brazil has installed a reciprocal arrangement, fingerprinting and photographing American visitors at its Sao Paolo airport. Russia has also voiced its displeasure with the new regime, but has not yet followed Brazil's lead. Mikhail Troyanskii of the Russian Foreign Ministry's press office expressed official regret over the U.S. action.

"It is clear that such a practice, however reasoned, is fraught with a further escalation of problems for Russian citizens who apply for American visas. The question arises -- how does this fit in the top-level agreements reached at Camp David on the expansion on Russian-American exchanges between people and the simplifying of visa procedures for that reason? We have to state that it is hard to talk about any improvements in bilateral visa relations," Troyanskii said.

Privacy issues are also a concern. U.S. officials say the data will be stored security by the departments of State and Homeland Security. Ridge today offered assurance that the new procedure would not violate the privacy of foreign travelers to the United States.

"Legitimate travelers who fall into America's open arms should know that they have nothing to fear in this new system. Information gathered will be kept strictly to authorized officials on a need-to-know basis and will be governed by the Privacy Act at all times," Ridge said.

The new procedure will be expanded to America's 165 land-border crossing points by the end of 2005. It is also intended to gradually phase out a similar paper-based system introduced after the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001.

"Only the smallest fraction of visitors to our country may be involved in terrorism," Ridge said today. "But our job is to be sure they are stopped. Obviously, one of the best ways is to prevent them from entering in the first place."

The countries exempt from the new procedure are Andorra, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Britain, Brunei, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Monaco, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, San Marino, Singapore, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland.