DHS to foreign visitors: Give me 10

'This will dramatically improve our ability to detect and thwart terrorists trying to enter the United States, with no significant increase in inconvenience.'

'DHS secretary Michael Chertoff

Agency to start scanning, checking 10 fingerprints instead of just two

Homeland Security Department secretary Michael Chertoff's new requirement that all first-time visitors to the United States provide 10 fingerprints'rather than the current two required from most'is getting high marks from security experts for its ability to provide more meticulous identification and improved security.

But the conversion is likely to be complex, the technology will be expensive to implement and the system could be inconvenient for incoming travelers, according to those same observers.

Chertoff announced the new standard last month as part of the strategy to overhaul the agency's organization. The plan calls for first-time visitors to scan, or enroll, 10 prints, while subsequent visits would require only two fingerprints for verification.

'This will dramatically improve our ability to detect and thwart terrorists trying to enter the United States, with no significant increase in inconvenience,' Chertoff said.

Reaction has been mostly positive. Requiring 10 fingerprints 'is a strong first step to identifying terrorists at our borders,' wrote the 13 Democrats on the House Homeland Security Committee in a response to Chertoff's reorganization plan.

Improved compatibility

The 10-fingerprint standard has long been used by the FBI and has been recommended for identity verification systems by the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

Chertoff's plan to provide a link between the two-fingerprint IDENT reference system used by the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology program and the FBI's Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification system comes after months of criticism from Congress, federal agencies and the media about incompatibilities between the systems.

One difference between the systems is that U.S. Visit now uses flat fingerprints while IAFIS uses rolled fingerprint images. The Justice Department's inspector general issued a report last year stating that integrating the databases would take years and cost many millions of dollars, a position DHS rejected when it announced the two systems' 'integration' last October.

A key distinction between the systems is that IAFIS uses a fingerprint data exchange algorithm that provides a much more accurate match than IDENT, because IAFIS data must hold up in court rather than meet the lower accuracy standard required to deny a visa.

'Right now whenever a person submits the two fingerprints and they generate a hit on the two fingerprints that go against IDENT, they require them to give ten prints, for comparison with law enforcement databases [including IAFIS]. Then they can determine whether the hit was a significant issue,' according to a senior federal fingerprint system specialist, who added that some IDENT hits are trivial.

Diplomatic posts in Mexico have been using the 10-fingerprint process for all visa applicants since 1998, the specialist said. 'This will reduce false positives and increase the accuracy of the process.'

The system change will convert the data to an American National Standards Institute-approved algorithm used to exchange information among incompatible fingerprint systems.

'Right now, the fingerprints captured at the consulates [are] only compared to the terrorist watch list,' the fingerprint specialist added.

U.S. Visit officials have said the two-print check against the IDENT reference system meets the program's goals and was designed for quick implementation. The program's budget is about $370 million a year. After the change, DHS will retain the two fingerprint images in the Arrival Departure System component of U.S. Visit to verify border transits.

Cost estimates for U.S. Visit's conversion range from $30 million to more than $100 million, not including additional personnel.

Also daunting is the amount of time it will take for travelers at U.S. airports to perform the 10-fingerprint enrollment and database checks. While many visitors would get their scans when they apply for visas at embassies in advance of their trips, the primary concern is the millions of travelers from the 27 visa-waiver countries, including Great Britain, Japan and France.

Those visitors may have to enroll fingerprints upon arriving at U.S. airports, and some, or possibly all, would have their prints checked against law enforcement databases.

Informal estimates of additional wait times range from 10 seconds to 15 seconds per person for the scannings and several minutes more per person for the database checks.

Asa Hutchinson, the department's former undersecretary of border and transportation security, said the move to 10 fingerprints will be worthwhile, though not simple.

'It's absolutely the right thing to do,' said Hutchinson, now chairman of the homeland security practice of Venable LLP law firm in Washington.

'I would agree that there will be added costs and they will have to wrestle with the timing. There will be challenges in the implementation,' Hutchinson said.

There also are questions about whether the FBI's database of 45 million prints can handle the expected additional screenings from U.S. Visit, which processes as many as 180,000 travelers a day.

The new standard will require more data processing power, greater data storage capacity, data programming and infrastructure changes and better integration with the FBI's database, according to several IT industry officials who asked not to be identified.

Switching to 10-fingerprint scanning also will mean new, larger biometric scanners and readers capable of enrolling and reading 10 fingerprints. The 10-print scanners cost about $5,000 to $10,000 each versus about $500 for the current scanners.

Alice Lipowicz writes for GCN's sister publication Washington Technology. GCN senior writer Wilson P. Dizard III contributed to this story.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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