US-VISIT Is No Bargain

By Bruce Schneier
eWeek.com
July 6, 2004

In the wake of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's awarding of its largest contract, for a system to fingerprint and to keep tabs on foreign visitors in the United States, it makes sense to evaluate our country's response to terrorism. Are we getting good value for all the money that we're spending?

US-VISIT is a government program to help identify the 23 million foreigners who visit the United States every year. It includes capturing fingerprints and taking photographs of all the visitors and building a database to store all this data. Citizens of 27 countries, mostly in Europe, who don't need a visa to enter the United States are exempt. And visitors from those countries are expected to have passports with biometric data encoded on them in a few years.

The contract for the next phase of the US-VISIT program costs $15 billion. It also has other costs: convenience, privacy, civil liberties and distraction from the greater danger of other terrorist threats.

Despite its costs, US-VISIT doesn't offer us much security in return. Securing airports and seaports intercepts only visitors attempting to enter legally. We have a 5,500-mile-long border with Canada and a 2,000-mile-long border with Mexico. Each year, 200,000 to 300,000 people enter the country illegally from Mexico.

For more on US-VISIT, check out John Pallatto's column "What Price Security? US-VISIT."

Even if we could fully seal our borders, fingerprinting every visitor wouldn't keep terrorists out. The 9/11 terrorists would not have been deterred by this system; many of them entered the country legally with valid passports and visas.

At the same time, US-VISIT will alienate and stigmatize the very people we need as allies in our country: honest resident foreigners. We want people to go to the police when they see something suspicious in their communities without fear of being detained. US-VISIT is the sort of large-scale surveillance system we should be suspicious about.

As security users, we must ask if this is the smartest way to spend $15 billion. Would we be smarter to spend our money hiring Arabic translators for the FBI and the CIA or on emergency response capabilities in our cities and towns? We must make choices. America doesn't have infinite money or freedoms. If we're going to sacrifice some of each to get security, we must make smart choices to get the most security we can.

Politicians like big-ticket security programs because their expense demonstrates that the pols are addressing the issue. In this election year, we're being asked to choose leaders who can best steer our country through these dangerous times. We must act like smart security users. Instead of blindly following political advertising, we need to consider trade-offs and alternatives. Otherwise, we're going to pay more than we need to, and we're going to get less security than we deserve.

earlier essay: Insider Risks in Elections
later essay: Security, Houston-Style
categories: National Security Policy, Privacy and Surveillance
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