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Schneier slams US border biometrics

The Department of Homeland Security has disputed Bruce Schneier's claim that the US-Visit program has had no impact on reducing criminal and terrorist threats.
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Written by Tom Espiner, Senior Reporter on
Security expert and BT chief security-technology officer Bruce Schneier has attacked the US-Visit border-biometrics program, saying it has had "zero benefit" in terms of security.

Speaking to ZDNet UK last week, Schneier said that there was little evidence that the US-Visit program, which takes fingerprints and retinal scans from all visitors to the United States, had made any impact on reducing the threat from criminals and terrorists.

"If the Department of Homeland Security had apprehended any terrorists [through US-Visit], they would have kicked up a huge press stink," said Schneier. "There has been zero benefit from the program."

A long-time critic of the US-Visit program, Schneier first questioned the cost-effectiveness of the scheme in 2006. At the time, just under 1,000 people had been apprehended for criminal or immigration violations, yet the program had cost $15 billion (£9.4bn) up to that point.

"Take that $15 billion number," wrote Schneier in a 2006 blog post. "One thousand bad guys, most of them not very bad, caught through US-Visit. That's $15 million per bad guy caught. Surely there's a more cost-effective way to catch bad guys?"

However, Robert Jamison, undersecretary at the US Department of Homeland Security's National Protection and Programs Directorate, which oversees US-Visit, told ZDNet UK at the RSA Conference Europe 2008 on Wednesday that the border-biometrics program had been effective.

"There have been several instances of someone applying for entry under one name, being denied, applying under another name, and again being denied [due to biometrics records]," said Jamison. "In a few cases, criminal activity and, in some cases, terrorist activity have been prevented."

Jamison declined to say exactly how many terrorists had been caught as a direct result of the program, saying the information was "classified". However, Department of Homeland Security figures show that more than 2,400 immigration "violators" and criminals have been identified since the inception of the program in January 2004.

In February, US-Visit was claimed to have helped identify two terrorist suspects, now being held in Iraq, from fingerprints lifted from an improvised explosive device.

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