News

New US biometric scans are all fingers and thumbs

14 Mar 2007 by business traveller

Travellers entering the US will soon be subject to 10 fingerprint scans as part of the immigration identification process

Travellers entering the US will soon be subject to 10 fingerprint scans as part of the immigration identification process.

US Visit, part of the Department of Homeland Security, is to launch a pilot run of its new biometric machines this autumn with an expected complete roll out in March 2008. Currently visitors to the States face two fingerprint scans, a photo and an interview by an immigration officer.

Robert Mocny, acting director of US Visit, which has costed the biometric programme at US$1.7 billion, says the move from two prints to ten is a natural technological evolution and will in fact make the immigration process faster for travellers. The current two-fingerprint process takes around 10 seconds to complete and the 10-fingerprint scan is expected to take around three seconds longer, but Mocny says: "Two fingerprints are not concise enough and we found sometimes people were having to go through the process twice. But when you take multiple finger scans [with all 10 prints] it is a dead certainty who you are."

US Visit has implemented a range of security measures from the visa application point up to arrival and departure in the US. Since 2004 it has taken 80 million peoples' prints on entering the US and stopped 1,800 people from entering under a false identity. Mocny says: "That is the power of the biometric. Before, identity has always been by name and there were a lot of misrepresentations – but this is definite: this is "we know who you are.""

Currently seven million people apply for a visa to the US each year. Applicants will have their fingers scanned at the Embassy so that the visa will marry up with the passenger at the airport. The data collected by the Embassies is then passed directly on to immigration and US Visit says it is treated as confidential and it does not pass it on to any other party. It will, however, be available to investigative agencies, and can be shared with other international parties, should they need to trace someone. Mocny believes innocent travellers to the US have nothing to worry about: "We want people to come to the US, but we want them to leave on time. For people who have never committed a crime it will be a safer place to travel."

Frequent business travellers to the US will start to encounter the pilot devices from October / November this year in ten of the USA's busiest airports: Boston Logan International Airport, Chicago O'Hare International Airport, Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, Miami International Airport, John F Kennedy International Airport, Orlando International Airport, Philadelphia International Airport, San Francisco International Airport, and Washington Dulles International Airport. Boston will be the only airport to have the device in all passport control lanes from the autumn.

Last month US Visit also launched TRIP (Traveller Redress Inquiry Programme) for passengers who feel they have been treated unfairly at immigration or are repeatedly identified for additional screening. Passengers complete online forms which are dealt with individually.

Finally, for those wishing to avoid the US altogether both Air New Zealand and Air Canada offer round the world tickets without stopping in the States (see Online news March 1 and March 8).

For more information on the US VISIT initiative visit dhs.gov.

In other news the UK Identity and Passport Service (IPS) has launched the first 48-page 'jumbo' biometric ePassport, the latest version of the UK passport, combining the security enhancements of the 32-page ePassport introduced last year with 16 extra pages for visas.

Biometric ePassports, have a secure chip, which stores the holder's personal details and a scan of their photo. Four million ePassports have been issued to UK citizens to date. The new £77 48-page ePassport can be applied for online at ips.gov.uk or by calling the IPS Advice line on +44 (0) 870 15210410.

For more information see Mark Caswell's report on biometric passports in the April issue of Business Traveller.

Report by Felicity Cousins

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