Visitors from European nations traveling with visas or visa-free to the United States will soon have to give 10 digital fingerprints when entering the country, a senior U.S. Homeland Security official said Monday.
Border checks could also soon include other biometric data, such as facial and eye retina scans, as the U.S. upgrades security at its ports, airports and border crossings, said P.T. Wright, the operations director for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's US-VISIT Program.
All people from European nations and others participating in the U.S. Visa-Waiver program would have to give additional prints, as would people traveling from nations where visas are needed, he said.
Wright, who was in Brussels to explain the new system to EU officials, said a pilot project at 10 major U.S. airports would be launched in late 2007, expanding the current program that calls for taking prints of two fingers and facial photographs.
Since the two-fingerprint scans were introduced in 2004, Wright said, security and convenience for travelers has gotten better.
"What we have encountered in the last four years is improved security as well as greater facilitation of the traveler coming to the United States," Wright said. "It's a very quick and simple scan of the fingers."
U.S. travel security restrictions have caused increased opposition in EU nations, amid demands from Brussels that Washington expand its visa-waiver program to include all 27 EU nations.
The current program allows citizens from most Western European countries and some other parts of the world to enter the country without visas, but excludes many of the newer EU member states.
EU data protection officials also have raised concerns in the past over the U.S. system and over a similar fingerprint system being set up by EU nations. They are keen to get the best privacy guarantees for citizens.
Wright said data was collected on visitors under strict U.S. privacy protection rules, and that the new 10-print scan would not take more time than the current check - usually about 10 seconds.
The prints are checked against U.S. security watch lists drawn up by U.S. Homeland Security and other policing agencies. The Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Central Intelligence Agency also have access to the prints, Wright said.
The 10-print scans would be "virtually 100 percent match accurate," he said.
"We are going to know that that's you," Wright said. Future changes include adding other biometric identifiers - such as facial or retinal scans - to better rule out fraud, he said.
"The fingerprint is a foundation biometric, so once your identity is established using the fingerprint and your identity is fixed then we believe for verifying we can move to any of the future technologies as they become better and faster," he said.
Airports chosen for the initial pilot project include Boston Logan International, Chicago's O'Hare, George Bush Houston Intercontinental, Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International, Miami International, John F. Kennedy International, Orlando International, San Francisco International and Washington Dulles International.
The current US-VISIT program that uses a two-print arrival system is being used in 115 airports, 15 seaports and 154 land border checks. 100 million prints had been taken so far.
More than 34,000 people whose names showed up on U.S. watch lists were denied U.S. entry as a result of the system.