Since Jan. 5, the first day of Reading Period, “biometric” information—digital photographs and fingerprints—has been collected from almost all visitors to the United States. Despite the apprehension of the international community, the new entry requirement, titled US-VISIT (for U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology) and implemented by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), is a sound idea that will improve American security.
The new program will nearly eliminate the possibility of visitors forging travel documents, a dangerous practice that is currently all too easy. Biometrics is the vanguard of identification technology, and the U.S. is pioneering a system that will soon become the norm. Within a few decades, passports of most—if not all—countries will contain biometric information, contributing to the security of the whole world and the peace of mind of all travellers.
According to the DHS, the scanning adds on average only 15 seconds to the time it takes a visitor to go through Immigration. (An exception is made for Canadians and travellers who may visit the U.S. under the visa waiver program.) Upon exit, there also soon will be a “checkout” system whereby visitors will be able to repeat the digital “fingerscanning” at self-operated kiosks, thus confirming departure.
Preoccupations about privacy and civil rights are legitimate, but there are currently no reasons to be concerned. There are no plans for the information collected on entry to the U.S. to be used internally—to track visitors within the country, for example—and so long as that abuse is never proposed, the biometric policy is worthy of support.
It is not reassuring that the U.S. government waited so long to put into operation measures so important, yet relatively straightforward and inexpensive. Despite all the rhetoric about security and “being ready,” US-VISIT is a program that could have been implemented a few years ago.
It is also regretful that US-VISIT was not publicly announced to the world further in advance of its implementation. Acting unilaterally, the U.S. imposed Oct. 26, 2004 as a deadline for all visitors’ passports to contain biometric information. After that date, non-biometric passports will have to be accompanied by biometric visas. But even the United Kingdom, one of the world’s wealthiest countries, has announced that it will not be ready to issue biometric visas until mid-2005. By not providing appropriate communication to the international community in advance, the U.S. has essentially imposed an additional bureaucratic burden—acquiring visas—on all potential visitors. The lack of advance warning may have an undesired deterrent effect on trade and tourism.
With an international community that already bemoans the U.S. aggressively imposing its self-interested policies on other countries, the establishment of US-VISIT could easily have been organized to allow foreign countries sufficient time to prepare and to accept the motivation behind our new policy. Instead of increasing international tension, the U.S. could have more harmoniously implemented a policy that is justified and useful.