Border security law requires data sharing, visa readers for tracking foreign visitors

One type of machine-readable visa would use bar code technology to hold tamper-resistant biometric data.

Immigration, law enforcement and intelligence agencies must integrate databases and share information under border security legislation signed into law last month.

To aid in tracking foreign visitors in this country, the State Department by October 2003 will begin issuing machine-readable travel documents with biometric identifiers. The Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act of 2002 authorizes $150 million each to the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Customs Service to upgrade the technology to meet the law's demands.

The law cites the USA Patriot Act for technology standards. The Patriot Act requires the attorney general and secretary of State to 'certify a technology standard that can be used to verify the identity of persons' applying for visas. The standard will be used to create a 'cross-agency, cross-platform electronic system that is a cost-effective, efficient, fully interoperable means to share law enforcement and intelligence information.'

Standards for international travel documents, such as visas, are set by the International Civil Aviation Organization. Datastrip Inc. of Exton, Pa., now has the only card approved for machine-readable visas.

Datastrip's 2D Superscript is a 2-D bar code that uses proprietary algorithms to squeeze up to 3K of data into a five-eighths by 3-inch space.

'You can print the bar code with a standard ink-jet printer,' said Charles B. Lynch, Datastrip's vice president for marketing and sales.

Several biometric templates can be included in the space. Typical fingerprints use from 250 to 500 bytes, a photo about 1K, and an iris scan about 500 bytes. Multiple identifiers may be required on each card to meet the requirement that verification be highly accurate.

The bar code can be scratched or bent and still be read and is not subject to magnetic interference.

Readers, with options

Handheld readers are available for the cards. They can include built-in fingerprint readers as well as ports for cameras or other devices for biometric confirmation.

Implementing a machine-readable visa system to verify identity is a simple job compared to the task of integrating myriad databases from multiple agencies and providing authorized users access to that data.

Access to the data will be restricted to consular officers who issue visas and officials who determine eligibility or are investigating aliens.

The system will have to be searchable by name, using commercial technology to account for different name formats, languages and spelling differences.

A nine-member commission appointed by the president will oversee the network.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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