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Get used to biometric tests, U.S. tells travelers

Reuters | May 26, 2005
By Gideon Long

International travelers should get used to having their fingerprints taken or their irises scanned because traditional airport security tests are outdated and open to abuse, a leading U.S. official said on Thursday.

"As a general principle, certainly in the area of international travel, biometrics is the way forward in virtually every respect," said Michael Chertoff, U.S. Homeland Security Secretary.

"When we screen based on names, we're screening on the most primitive and least technological basis of identification -- it's the most susceptible to misspelling, or people changing their identity, or fraud.

A foreign visitor has her fingerprints taken in a pilot program at the International Arrivals Building at Dulles International Airport in Sterling, Virginia, March 16, 2005. Photo by Shaun Heasley/Reuters

"Biometrics is the way ahead."

Chertoff was speaking to reporters after meeting British officials during a four-day visit to Europe to discuss transatlantic security cooperation.

On Monday he visited the Netherlands, which will pilot a scheme later this year to allow passengers flying between New York's JFK airport and Amsterdam's Schiphol airport to pass through border controls using a biometric card.

If they can produce the card, travelers will not be subjected to further questioning or screening.

The scheme is the first of its kind to be launched between the United States and a European country and, if it works, could be adopted elsewhere.

The United States hopes the use of biometric testing will help prevent potential terrorists entering the country and cut down confusion about who is allowed in and who is not.

The most high profile case of confusion involving a British citizen came in September last year when Yusuf Islam, the singer formerly known as Cat Stevens, was barred from entering the United States after boarding a plane from London.

U.S. officials diverted the flight 600 miles from its destination of Washington D.C, took Islam off the plane and sent him back to Britain.

Washington said his name appeared on their no-fly lists and he was stopped because his activities "could be potentially linked to terrorism." Britain, where Islam is a renowned educationalist and respected member of the Muslim community, insisted he was harmless.

Britain is one of 27 countries whose citizens do not need a visa to enter the United States if they intend to stay less than 90 days. Washington wants all 27 to issue new passports by Oct. 26 this year containing a computer chip and a digital photograph of the holder.

Chertoff stressed the need for these countries to talk to each other about the kind of chips they were using to avoid the emergence of rival testing systems.

He made an analogy with the "video war" of the early 1980s, when VHS and Betamax vied for dominance as the industry standard for video recording systems.

"It would be a very bad thing if we all invested huge amounts of money in biometric systems and they didn't work with each other," he said. "Hopefully were not going to do VHS and Betamax with our chips," he added. "I was one of the ones who bought Betamax and that's now in the garbage."


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