Justice to expand fingerprint scanning

Declaring that "fingerprints do not lie," Attorney General John Ashcroft announced that the Immigration and Naturalization Service will use electronic fingerprint scanners later this summer to check the identities of tens of thousands of foreign visitors as they arrive in airports in the United States.

The fingerprints of visitors will be compared to databases of fingerprints of known and suspected criminals and terrorists in an effort to intercept terrorists trying to enter the United States, Ashcroft said June 5.

Prints will also be checked against a new database of "latent fingerprints" collected by U.S. troops as they combed through abandoned terrorist training camps in Afghanistan, Ashcroft disclosed. "The operations of the U.S. military in Afghanistan have allowed us to expand that database considerably," he said.

A smaller version of the system is already quietly at work at several U.S. ports of entry, Ashcroft said. Since January, INS has caught an average of 67 people each week whose fingerprints matched those in the databases. About 1,400 wanted criminals have been arrested as they tried to enter the country, Ashcroft said when announcing plans to expand the system to all airports where foreigners arrive.

Digital fingerprint identification systems are highly accurate, said Michael McCabe, a fingerprint and imaging expert at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. "If terrorists are in the database, there's a good chance we'll find them" by scanning fingerprints and checking them against the database, he said.

The fingerprint scanners and fingerprint databases are one part of a three-element National Security Entry/Exit Registration System that Ashcroft has ordered to begin keeping better track of foreign nationals who are in the United States.

Besides fingerprinting tens of thousands of arriving visitors, Ashcroft said some foreign visitors will also be photographed. Aliens who are deemed to pose a threat to national security also will be required to register with INS after they have been in the United States for 30 days, and once a year thereafter. And certain visitors will be required to notify INS when they depart.

The names of those who fail to register and fail to report their departure will be entered into the National Crime Information Center database, Ashcroft said. Local police check the database routinely, increasing the chance that those who violate the new reporting rules will be discovered during minor encounters with the police, such as traffic stops, he said.

And those who fail to notify INS of their departure will become ineligible to re-enter the United States, Justice Department officials said.

At the airports where the system is already being used, scanning fingerprints of an arriving visitor and comparing them to fingerprints stored in databases takes about three minutes, Ashcroft said.

Initially, only about 100,000 foreign visitors a year are likely to be subject to fingerprint scans. "We don't have the capacity to get fingerprints from all" visitors, a senior Justice official said. "That takes an enormous amount of infrastructure, and we don't have it."

All visitors from Iraq, Iran, Libya, Sudan and Syria will be fingerprinted, Justice officials said. The Bush administration considers those countries to be sponsors of terrorism.

Beyond those visitors, Justice officials are developing criteria that INS inspectors will use for deciding which visitors must undergo fingerprint checks.

Ultimately, Justice intends to build an entry/exit tracking system that uses fingerprints to track "the 35 million foreign visitors who enter the United States annually," Ashcroft said.

"The technology can be made to work, there are no technical show-stoppers," said Jackie Fenn, a fingerprint technology specialist for Gartner Inc. But fingerprinting foreign visitors may produce some unintended consequences. The deterrent effect of fingerprinting is likely to dissuade many visitors from overstaying visas or even crossing borders. One result could be labor shortages in certain industries, she said.

***

Justice's Fingerprint system

When foreign visitors arrive at U.S. airports, prints from two fingers will be scanned electronically. The scanned files will be compressed, transmitted to databases and compared to fingerprints stored there.

Justice Department officials said the visitors' prints will be compared to prints in the FBI's Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System, which contains 40 million sets of fingerprints, including those of criminals and terrorists. The visitors' prints will also be transmitted to the Immigration and Naturalization Service's Ident database, which contains fingerprints of people who have entered the country previously.

Finally, the prints will be compared to those in the database of prints recovered from terrorist training sites in Afghanistan.

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