Politics & Policy

Fingering The Problem

Be secure in biometrics.

The U.S. has seen the future of border security, and it is the fingerprint. The swirly pattern on a fingertip is what is called in the security business a “biometric identifier.” It is a feature unique to every person, and therefore key to establishing someone’s identity.

Privacy advocates on the left and the right get suspicious at the mere mention of the word “biometrics,” and people have a natural resistance to being fingerprinted because of its association with the criminal-justice system. Get over it. There will be no border security or fraud-proof identity documents–both of which are crucial when we are attempting to stop a catastrophic terror attack–without utilizing the amazing power of a fingerprint.

The Department of Homeland Security has now instituted the biometric-based US-VISIT program to begin tracking entries and exits. Someone traveling here on a visa has his fingerprints taken when his visa is granted overseas, and his prints are checked against a database to see if he has a terrorist or criminal background. When the visa-holder arrives at a U.S. airport, his fingerprints are checked to ensure that he is who he says he is, and again against a terrorist/criminal watch list. The watch-list check takes all of about six seconds.

DHS has enrolled more than 28 million people in the system, according to former DHS official Stewart Verdery. He recounts the case of a convicted rapist who was identified at Newark International Airport. He had been deported from the U.S. previously, but had traveled to the U.S. using nine aliases and four different dates of birth. The program has denied entry to 600 people who have shown up here but have no business being in the United States, and has led to the denial of additional thousands of visa applications overseas. There has been a decline in the number of faked visas.

The problem with US-VISIT, which is still in its initial stages, is that it applies only to about 15 percent of visitors. The great bulk of visitors come by land from Canada and especially Mexico. In 2002, Mexicans accounted for 104 million out of roughly 200 million visits. To get into the U.S., Mexicans are issued border crossing cards that have fingerprints, but they are never checked. Fraud abounds. People rent the cards in Mexico and use them to enter the U.S. illegally.

Our border with Mexico should truly enter the era of biometrics. It is a massive task, but the technology is there. Border crossing cards can be made so they can be read and checked against a watch list wirelessly the way an E-ZPass works at a highway tollgate. The New Jersey E-ZPass system processes more than 400 million transactions a year.

The kind of guest-worker program being debated in Congress now should be a non-starter without a biometric identity card. As Jessica Vaughan of the Center for Immigration Studies argues, the only way to “bring people out of the shadows,” in the catchphrase of guest-worker supporters, is to know who they are–which is impossible without a biometric card. It should serve both as an entry and an employer-verification document for a guestworker. Employers would swipe the cards and check them against a database confirming the employability of the cardholder, the way they swipe a Visa card now. If it will take time to create this system–fine, the guest-worker program can wait.

Meanwhile, we should be making existing documents more secure. U.S. passports should include fingerprints. That they don’t is testament to the power of the privacy lobby. But if you have to present a passport to travel anyway, it doesn’t violate your privacy to make it fraud-proof. And a fingerprint will alleviate the most intrusive aspect of the current system, which is the false positives that subject innocent people to intrusive searches because their names seem to match ones on the watch list.

Don’t fear the fingerprint. It is the future.

Rich Lowry is author of Legacy: Paying the Price for the Clinton Years.

(c) 2004 King Features Syndicate

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