New concerns over commerce and privacy hit US-VISIT

The US-VISIT identity verification program met its goal of opening biometric identification stations at the 50 top busiest land ports of entry into the United States by the end of 2004. Its program office intends to extend its presence to the remaining 115 land ports of entry by the end of 2005.
The main goal of the US-VISIT technology is to document the arrival and departures of foreign visitors to the country, scanning two index fingerprints and capturing a digital photograph of each person as he or she moves through secondary Customs inspection. American citizens, and some Canadians and Mexicans, only pass through the primary inspection stations.
DHS expanded the program to include visitors from allied Visa Waiver Nations starting Sept. 30. Since its inception on Jan. 5, 2004, US-VISIT has become operational at 115 airports and 15 seaports, in addition to the land ports.
Proponents of the US-VISIT program argue that it speeds entry into the United States, as foreign visitors historically have filed an immigration visitor’s form, Form I-94, documenting their visit. The US-VISIT systems, however, now file the form automatically. When a Customs officer scans visitors’ travel documents, the data is also automatically catalogued and stored.
“In ports where this technology has been deployed, the advancement has proven to expedite a visitor’s inspection time,” the US-VISIT program office says in its press materials.
But that’s not how critics see it.
Free flow of commerce
Many questions were raised about the impact of US-VISIT on trade at land ports during the comment period for an interim rule published by the US-VISIT office in the US Federal Register on Aug. 31, 2004. Watchdogs and international organizations had until Dec. 1 to respond.
Several respondents voiced concerns about the impact on trade flowing through the Canadian and Mexican borders with the United States, including the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, which noted that introducing US-VISIT to land ports could not help but slow deliveries across the border.
“In the land environment, almost all travelers arrive in private vehicles without any type of schedule or predictability,” the Chamber of Commerce comment stated. “Moreover, the setup at many border crossings means that traveler traffic is mixed in with commercial traffic.”
The separation of the two lines of traffic would require “streaming” commercial traffic through different points of entry than traveler traffic, the Chamber continued, which would involve significant investments by Canada to redesign plazas and roads on its side of the border.
Martin Rojas, executive director for Safety, Security and Operations at the American Trucking Associations, suggested in a Nov. 1 letter that “the testing and use of radio frequency technology on both the entry and exit components” of US-VISIT would better speed trucks through the checkpoints.
“Use of RF [radio frequency] technology to electronically capture a driver’s information as they approach the inspection booth is another measure that can potentially offset border delays by enhancing overall inspection and immigration processing times,” Rojas wrote.
In addition, the Embassy of Japan highlighted specific concerns about commerce along the Mexican border, noting that many Japanese workers travel across the border every day between their jobs and their homes.
“Some Japanese enterprises have concerns about longer times to pass immigration control at land ports of entry on US-Canada and US-Mexico borders and the decline of their competitive power against the US companies caused nearby,” wrote Japanese counselor Jan Yamada in a letter dated Nov. 1, 2004.
Specifically, the Mexican government permits some foreign investment in Mexican corporations, up to 100 percent, without any special authorization. Japanese interests have invested in many such companies, known as “maquiladora” companies, but many Japanese employees live in the United States and commute into Mexico to work.
Those “who live in the US, commute to Mexico, and re-enter the US when they return home, will have their fingerprints scanned and their facial information photographed every time they return home after the introduction of the Program at land ports of entry,” Yamada wrote.
The procedure results in lengthy lines and significant loss of time for those workers, he argued.
The Embassy of Japan also was concerned about the collection of biometric identifiers for Japanese citizens.
“Japanese nationals still have reluctance to have their fingerprints scanned and concernsabout whether the US government controls their fingerprint data properly,” Yamada stated. “It is prerequisite for smooth and effective operation of the Program to relieve them from these psychological burdens.”
The embassy suggested that the United States ensure strong security measures of any personal information collected and publicize the details of that security.
But the most elaborate objections on potential infringements of privacy regarding US-VISIT came from Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), a watchdog organization dedicated to defending civil liberties and privacy rights.
Rotenberg warned in a Nov. 9 letter that Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials must guard against “mission creep” where the collection of personal information is concerned. DHS has made no secret that it shares US-VISIT data with outside law-enforcement agencies, prompting concerns that these agencies could use the information for purposes outside US-VISIT’s stated goals.
In addition, Rotenberg charged that the collection and use of biometric identifiers on foreign travelers violates a number of international privacy agreements.
DHS has not made the security of the personal data a priority in US-VISIT, Rotenberg added, and must do so promptly. “A large database containing personal information along with biometric identifiers is always subject to dangers of abuse, unauthorized access and mission creep,” he maintained.
Despite repeated efforts by HSToday, US-VISIT officials did not respond to requests for further information or comment. HST

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