Terrorists and Border ID Systems

This Washington Times article titled “Border Patrol hails new ID system” could have just as accurately been titled “No terrorists caught by new ID system.”

Border Patrol agents assigned to U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) identified and arrested 23,502 persons with criminal records nationwide through a new biometric integrated fingerprint system during a three-month period beginning in September, CBP officials said yesterday.

Terrorism justifies the security expense, and it ends up being used for something else.

During the three-month period this year, the agents identified and detained 84 homicide suspects, 37 kidnapping suspects, 151 sexual assault suspects, 212 robbery suspects, 1,238 suspects for assaults of other types, and 2,630 suspects implicated in dangerous narcotics-related charges.

Posted on January 7, 2005 at 7:58 AM19 Comments


Ian January 7, 2005 8:56 AM

From a strictly anti-terrorist standpoint, I can understand how this system is pointless, however just from a general standpoint, I don’t see why it is such a negative thing.

I’m a firm believer in privacy over imagined threats, but I think it’s a very good thing to identify people as they enter our country, to determine if they are entitled to enter it and under what circumstances. That it incidentally catches fugitives is an entirely positive thing.

Jon January 7, 2005 9:17 AM

If the system was really catching fugitives, then I can see the benefit. If you notice, the article did not say “84 murders, 37 kidnappers, 151 molesters, 212 robbers, etc.”, it referred to each class as suspects. This means that the people detained were not convicted of whatever the CBP thinks they did.

Add to that the fact that CBP makes mistakes. I work with a guy from the Middle East. He went home for a couple weeks on vacation, taking with him all of his completely valid documentation. Upon his attempted return to the States, he was refused entry for nearly 6 weeks because his name happened to be the same as someone on the terrorist watch list.

Finally, since the CBP is looking for suspects rather than convicts, this can be used by people/governments in other countries to prevent people from entering the U.S. For example, a country can list a dissadent as a suspect in a violent crime and provide the CBP with the information, thus using the CBP to prevent the dissadent from entering the US for their planned speaking tour.

Tom January 7, 2005 10:08 AM

In response to Ian: Is this system the most effective way to catch fugitives? We don’t know; the system wasn’t evaluated on that criterion. The expense was justified by a perceived terrorist threat–is this system so effective that terrorists don’t even try to cross the border? Is there something else we need to be doing to address that threat? Or have we imagined a greater threat than truly exists? If we have, what real threats have we ignored because of it?

lightning January 7, 2005 10:12 AM

quote: … 84 homicide suspects, 37 kidnapping suspects, 151 sexual assault suspects, 212 robbery suspects, 1,238 suspects for assaults of other types, and 2,630 suspects implicated in dangerous narcotics-related charges.

… does not add up to “23,502 persons”. I wonder what the rest were for. Trivial misdemeanors?

Stu Savory January 7, 2005 10:36 AM

it says “identified . . . 23,502 persons with criminal records”.

Just from the profile it looks for, any terrorist entering is not :-
a homicide suspect, a kidnapping suspect, a sexual assault suspect, a robbery suspect, a suspect for assaults of other types, or a suspect implicated in dangerous narcotics-related charges. Al Quaida may be sending only “clean” people?

Michael January 7, 2005 10:48 AM


well observed, chances are that if any organisation would want to “plant” somebody they would make sure that this is a clean person.

Davi Ottenheimer January 7, 2005 11:05 AM

What if there are no terrorists coming over the border? The backers of the system probably feel pressure to build a broad-base of support for the huge cost of invasive screening to justify the loss of capital and privacy. American culture seems extremely susceptible to confirmation bias, to the point where serious flaws (risks) are ignored. As Francis Bacon said, “it is the peculiar and perpetual error of the human understanding to be more moved and excited by affirmatives than by negatives.” (First Book of Aphorisms, XLVI) What happens when the system registers everyone who crosses the border for suspicion of one kind or another? What kind of success is the government really looking for?

Adam Fields January 7, 2005 12:05 PM

Bruce – you’ve raised a number of interesting problems with this kind of identification in the past – it won’t catch any terrorists without previous records, there’s a high false-positive rate.

But there’s a question I haven’t seen asked:

Has the word “terrorist” ever been actually defined by the US government?

Can you talk a little about what makes a “terrorist” different from any other sort of criminal, justifying additional expense just to capture them?

Davi Ottenheimer January 7, 2005 12:53 PM


The Intelligence Community is guided by the definition of terrorism contained in Title 22 of the US Code, Section 2656f(d):

—The term “terrorism??? means premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience.

—The term “international terrorism??? means terrorism involving the territory or the citizens of more than one country.

—The term “terrorist group??? means any group that practices, or has significant subgroups that practice, international terrorism.

Brian Stanko January 7, 2005 3:22 PM

I find the comments curious since the article doesn’t clearly state which direction the people were travelling-into the US or out of it.

Javier Kohen January 7, 2005 3:28 PM

In my dictionary terrorism is defined as a deliberate or semi-deliberate mechanism used by certain governments to attract gullible voters. Curiously, it indicates communism to be a (pretty much) out of use synonym.

Quadro January 7, 2005 5:39 PM

As Jon pointed out, the system has caught only “suspects” (or at least, has released information on only suspects). However, in today’s politically correct climate, you can’t just say that someone is a “criminal” (unless they’re overwhelmingly unpopular, see also Osama bin Laden). If you listen to the news, they don’t even (usually) say that a “terrorist” was captured, but a “suspected” terrorist. Yes, even terrorists have rights!

Another instance of the best things about America (individual rights) being taken to extremes. You know there’s something wrong in this country when we allow those who want to destroy us to have more rights than the average citizen of most countries.

Mbubu O January 7, 2005 8:44 PM

@Brian: article doesn’t state which direction…

Since the US doesn’t currently fingerprint people leaving the country (although that’s changing), we can safely assume that the direction is inward.

However, given the number of people who cross versus the number of arrests, (and comparing to estimates of the number of fugitives per capita in the general population), this system is much less effective than having the police grab people at random on the streets and fingerprint them to check for outstanding criminal and civil warrants, and completely ineffective for screening terrorists.

So it’s just a visible scapegoating of foreigners to give us the illusion that the government is doing something.

kj January 7, 2005 9:53 PM


“You know there’s something wrong in this country when we allow those who want to destroy us to have more rights than the average citizen of most countries.”

Quadro, you scare the hell out of me.

“Innocent, until proven guilty. Unless we brand you a terrorist. Then you’re guilty as hell.”

Bruce Schneier January 8, 2005 7:49 AM

“You know there’s something wrong in this country when we allow those who want to destroy us to have more rights than the average citizen of most countries.”

Actually, that’s how you know there’s something right with a country. Everyone — the innocent, the guilty, the innocent until proven guilty — has rights. Punishing the guilty, and investigating crime, are important aspects of society, but so are individual rights.

MQuinn January 8, 2005 8:52 AM

It seems to me that catching fugitives is a great thing. Just because the fugitives caught were not terrorists, doesn’t mean they didn’t need to be apprehended. The crimes listed included violent crime. Surely if you or someone close to you were raped or murdered, you would be happy to see the suspect apprehended, regardless of the method.

I figure if you are innocent, you have nothing to worrry about. Often, privacy rights are exploited to protect the guilty. In a justice system where justice can be trumped by technicalities of every kind, I think we need all the tools we can get.

Adam Fields January 8, 2005 8:00 PM

Catching fugitives per se may be a good thing, but there are tradeoffs involved in expense, privacy, and actual security. The fact is that this system was installed to “catch terrorists”, and that’s just a lie – it’s an excuse to catch all sorts of other criminals. Why? Because people would never stand for this kind of system unless they think they’re “being protected from crazy religious mass murderers”.

And, frankly, we, as a society, are not prepared for the case where law enforcement has a perfect record. Everyone’s a criminal is some way or another, and the general populace shouldn’t have to live in fear. The criminal justice system is predicated on harsh punishments as a deterrent, because law enforcement doesn’t expect to be able to catch every lawbreaker. Changing that changes the dynamic in the system drastically.

egeltje January 10, 2005 3:26 AM

“I figure if you are innocent, you have nothing to worrry about.”
Please define innocent.
Right now I am innocent of committing any capital crime, with certain views and values, and not too-positive thoughts of our government.
If that government would change the law and add a whole list of what you might be guilty of, then it is BAD that there is already a powerful tool in place (under false pretences) that gives that same government the right and means of filtering people so nicely.

And before you start complaining that that won’t happen, explain to me why that draconian Patriot Act was passed… And why the Supreme Court still has such broad (and open to all kind of interpretations) ruling on Guantanamo Bay prisoners…

I wont be traveling to the States for quite some time. Not because I am guilty of anything, but because I believe it is turning more and more into a scary country.

piglet January 17, 2005 11:47 AM

First thing to observe is how little information the article contains. We need to know how many people were screened, which categories of people, and how many false positives were produced by the system.

Puzzling is the arrest of 23502 people with criminal records, i.e. people who have been convicted in the past but may now be law-abiding citizens. Since when is a criminal record a reason to be arrested?

Why is this story only reported in the Washington Times? In fact, it’s a reprint almost word by word of a cbp news release (http://cbp.customs.gov/xp/cgov/newsroom/press_releases/12202004_2.xml). With the interesting difference that the news release designates the suspects as “criminal aliens”, thereby clearly violating the assumption of innocence. Now we know why the information is so scarce and imprecise: the journalist hasn’t asked any critical questions.

This style of reporting was called Pravda-journalism not long ago but nowadays, it seems to be pretty typical for the way US news are made.

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