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The Department of Homeland Security's US-VISIT (United States Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology) program, according to the DHS is an "automated entry/exit system" intended to "expedite legitimate travelers, while making it more difficult for those intending to do us harm to enter" the United States. [1]

How US-VISIT Works

The Fact Sheet states that the system is specifically designed to:

  • Collect, maintain, and share information, including biometric identifiers, through a dynamic system, on foreign nationals to determine whether the individual:
  • Should be prohibited from entering the U.S.;
  • Can receive, extend, change, or adjust immigration status;
  • Has overstayed their visa; and/or
  • Needs special protection/attention (i.e., refugees); and
  • Enhance traffic flow for individuals entering or exiting the U.S. for legitimate purpose by:
  • Facilitating travel and commerce;
  • Respecting the environment;
  • Strengthening international cooperation; and
  • Respecting privacy laws and policies

"When the US-VISIT system is fully implemented, it will provide the information necessary to account for nearly all temporary foreign visitors in the United States. Any remaining elements of NSEERS, such as port of entry arrival registration, will become part of the US-VISIT system."

NSEERS (National Security Entry Exit Registration System) "was a pilot project focusing on a smaller segment of the nonimmigrant alien population deemed to be of risk to national security."

The Immigration Process

Upon immigration, non-US citizens will be digitally photographed and fingerprinted (all ten fingers on their first entry, thereafter both index fingers for verification).[2] Immigrants requiring a visa for entry will also be photographed and fingerprinted as part of the visa application process. Passports from Visa Waiver Program countries (VWP; 27 powerful European and Asian-Pacific countries) must be machine-readable and have a digital (i.e. printed, not pasted) photograph for entry.[3] During testing, the photographing and fingerprinting of immigrants added on average 15 seconds to the processing time.[4]

All VWP passports issued on or after Oct 26, 2006, must be "e-passports" containing an integrated computer chip storing biographic and biometric data. The deadline for e-passports has been postponed several times due to complications in both the US and VWP countries.[5] Belgium and Germany are frontrunners, introducing e-passports in Autumn 2005.[6]

The US-VISIT program is currently testing Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technology at five land border crossings to record entries and exits.[7] An RFID tag is embedded in Customs and Border Protection (CBP) forms I-94A, the standard arrival and departure record issued at points of entry. The RFID tag contains a serial number which can be linked to the holder's biographic and biometric data, potentially streamlining border crossing procedures.

The US government has also proposed embedding RFID (or "contactless chips") in its own citizens' passports, but has recently expressed concerns over the security and privacy issues presented by this idea.[8]

Complications of E-Passports

The introduction of e-passports has been postponed several times due to difficulties in all stages of implementation. Initially gathering and confirming the biographic and biometric data of hundreds of millions of VWP citizens is obviously a daunting task. Various investigations have confronted problems with indentification of both fingerprint and photographic data.[9][10] Additionally, all of the involved countries need to address interoperability issues.[11]

The collection of biometric data has raised concerns with civil liberties groups and security experts alike.[12] Since RFID "contactless" chips are designed to be read at a distance, they are vulnerable to "snooping" or "skimming" by third parties.[13] Recent advances in distortion techniques have mitigated some fears of identity theft[14], but weaknesses remain in the distortion process, which could potentially be compromised or reverse engineered, as well as in a possible breach of the immigration databases themselves.

Show Me the Money

When the US decided to require biometric data in passports, much of the cost of developing and implementing the program was foisted onto VWP countries who must comply so that their citizens may enter the US without having to apply for visas.[15] Much of the funding is provided by governmental organizations such as the DHS ($340 million in FY 2005) and the EU.[16] Additional costs will be passed on directly to the taxpayer in the form of higher fees to obtain a passport: e.g. Germany is raising the price of a passport from 26 to 59 Euro[17], and the Swiss from 120 to 250 CHF. Airlines carrying a passenger without acceptable identification will be required to pay a fine.[18]

Meanwhile, the German Association for Information Technology, Telecommunications and New Media e.V. (BITKOM) expects the electronic identification market to boom from 21 million Euro revenue in 2005 to 377 million Euro in 2009.[19] Industry giants, such as Microsoft, have also entered the electronic ID market.[20]

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