The US State Department said Friday it would, from 30 September, close a loophole that allowed visitors from countries participating in the visa waiver program to avoid being fingerprinted and photographed as they entered the country. Australia is one of the 27 nations participating in the program.
The State Department packaged the move as part of a request to Congress which would see the deadline for visa waiver countries to include biometric identifiers -- chips encoded with a digital image of the holders' face and fingerprints -- in their citizen's passports extended by two years from 26 October.
Australia's latest-version passports, dubbed "M-Series" passports introduced last year -- do not include machine readable biometric data. The trial of "SmartGate" facial-recognition technology by the Australian Customs Service from the end of 2002 has come under question, with critics claiming facial-recognition technology is not accurate enough for national security tasks.
US officials say the move is designed to close a loophole allowing terrorists to enter the country. However, Roger Clarke, e-business consultant and board member of the Australian Privacy Federation told ZDNet Australia the authors of the fingerprinting program had an agenda that extended beyond the prevention of terrorism.
"The foreigner fingerprinting program has nothing whatsoever to do with the prevention of terrorism," said Clarke. "It's a social control measure by the smart Right, using the terrorist acts of 2001 as an excuse." Clarke also said the US government's support of other countries implementing similar measures was unsurprising since it would give it a reason to introduce surveillance of US citizens.
Many civil liberties groups have expressed concern that the mandatory inclusion of biometrics and RFID tags in passports would convert travel systems into a global infrastructure of surveillance by creating a database of over one billion people.
Citizens of Australia and another 26 countries currently included in the visa waiver program are able to travel to the United States for up to 90 days without a visa. People who require a visa have undergone the fingerprint and photograph procedure since January 5 under the US-VISIT program.
"Since most countries are unable to meet the original October 2004 date to include biometrics in passports due to several technology-related reasons we have asked Congress for a two year extension of that requirement," said Asa Hutchinson, Under Secretary of Border and Transportation Security of the Department of Homeland Security in a statement. The extension will also give the Department time to install readers for the new passports at all points of entry. "Also, by September 30, visitors traveling under the visa waiver program who arrive at airports and seaports will be enrolled in US-VISIT." Travellers who have connecting flights in the US are forced to go through immigration.