Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

January 3, 2006

Your fingerprints, s’il vous plaît?

Filed under: International HLS,Privacy and Security — by Christian Beckner on January 3, 2006

The Boston Globe has an interesting piece today on potential plans at DHS, driven by the new policy office, to require Europeans and others traveling to the United States via the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) to have their fingerprints on file with the U.S. government. From the article:

”We’re moving to an area where international travelers’ fingerprints are going to be part of their identifier,” said Stewart Baker, assistant secretary for policy in the US Department of Homeland Security.

Baker, whose office develops long-term homeland security policies, said a decision is not imminent on the proposal to require Europeans to register their fingerprints. But he is considering it as a way to protect against terrorists with European backgrounds….

The fingerprint system [in US VISIT], specialists say, will help keep better track of visitors. But it won’t help catch a terrorist from Europe who is traveling on a forged or stolen passport, using a fake name that doesn’t show up on any watchlist.

Baker said requiring Europeans to register their fingerprints ahead of travel would reduce identity fraud because officials could match the fingerprint taken at the border against the database. Officials are still working out how to collect the European fingerprints, but two possible collection points would be local police stations or well-regulated private businesses, Baker said.

I can understand the security rationales for wanting to do this, given the large worldwide problem of lost and stolen passports (as cited elsewhere in the story) as well as al-Qaeda’s known intent to recruit people (such as Richard Reid) from VWP countries to carry out attacks. But I’m not sure that this ultimately passes the cost-benefit test, given the probable high costs of implementation, the potential decline in inbound international travel as the result of European resistance to the new plan, and the marginal security benefit. Even if we could match the fingerprints of VWP-country entrants against an authenticated record, that’s only going to have a very limited impact – and it’s not going to catch potential terrorists with EU citizenship who are off the radar of intelligence agencies and law enforcement services.

At this point, a wiser strategy to deal with the inherent vulnerabilities of the Visa Waiver Program might include (a) working with Europe and the rest of the world to enhance the security and integrity of the chain of custody of countries’ passport printing and distribution systems and (b) strengthening intelligence and law enforcement cooperation between US and VWP-country agencies.

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