Bias alleged in new security checks

The Department of Homeland Security’s latest addition to airport security checks has been greeted by a chorus of disapproval, both from domestic groups and internationally.

All 115 U.S. airports that handle international flights, as well as 14 major seaports, have implemented the new system, which has been titled the “U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology” or “US-VISIT.” The new security measures involve the fingerprinting and photographing of every foreign national entering the U.S. using a visa, affecting roughly 24 million people a year.

Those entering the United States using the “visa waiver program” are not affected by these new checks. This exclusion has prompted some to point out the discriminatory nature of the new measures, as 27 nations, including most of Europe as well as Australia and Japan, are among the countries that are included in the visa waiver program.

The General Accounting Office termed the US-VISIT program “a very risky endeavor” in a report published last year, citing its size, complexity, cost and management as potentially serious failing points of the system. Setting up the new program cost $362 million last year, and its extension to the 50 busiest land border crossings this year will cost at least $330 million this year.

Adding to the international criticism, a federal judge in Brazil has ordered that all U.S. citizens entering Brazil will be photographed and fingerprinted, following an official complaint by a Brazilian government office concerning the US-VISIT program. Judge Julier Sebastiao da Silva described his ruling as less a matter of retaliation, and more “a question of international rights.”

Tackling claims that the new program will replace previous discriminatory security practices, Timothy Edgar of the ACLU said “contrary to assertions by the Homeland Security Department, the US-VISIT program is an addition to – not a substitute for – the notorious special registration program that singled out Arab and Muslim men because of their national origin and that continues to subject them to special and confusing requirements.” He went on to say, “Arab and Muslim men are still subject to different requirements than other visitors.”

People who have previously registered under the NSEERS (National Security Entry Exit Registration System) program, mostly Arab and Muslim men and youths, are still subject to a confusing array of restrictions on where and how they can leave the United States. Although the government implies that the NSEERS program is no longer active, registrants will still find themselves penalized for breaking any of the rules that NSEERS applied to them.

Despite the Department of Homeland Security’s assertion that the information gathered through the US-VISIT system will only be available to “authorized officials on a need-to-know basis” in actuality the information is potentially available for use by customs and immigration officials, Homeland Security transport officers, various other federal, state and local officials as well as foreign governments. This wide dissemination of information about millions of travelers has many worried. Timothy Edgar of the ACLU Legislative Council described the US-VISIT program as “a large privacy violation waiting to happen, with records garnered under the program likely retained even after you’ve become a citizen.”

The use of “biometrics” in the US-VISIT program has also caused widespread concern. The photographs taken of each visitor are to be run through facial recognition software to compare them to images of known terrorists; just how accurate these systems are is unknown. Tests conducted at Boston’s Logan International Airport between January and April of 2002 showed a 38 percent failure rate for positive matches by the facial recognition software being used there, demonstrating just how fallible this kind of technology can be.

In 2001 the usage of biometrics within the U.S. attracted significant criticism when it became public that Tampa police had used facial recognition software to scan the fans attending the Super Bowl without their knowledge or consent.

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org.