Millions of green card holders will be fingerprinted and photographed every time they enter the United States as part of an expansion of a controversial biometric program, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced on Thursday.
The expansion of the US-VISIT program to permanent residents--also known as green card holders--takes effect on January 18, 2009. At the moment, the program's biometric requirements apply to foreign citizens with a non-immigrant visa or those traveling as part of the so-called Visa Waiver program.
Anyone screened as part of the US-VISIT program must provide digital fingerprints and a photograph at the border, plus date of birth, address while in the country, and other information that the U.S. government deems appropriate. The information is checked against a government database of known terrorists and criminals. Refusing to give prints of all 10 fingers will result in being denied entry to the country.
"Expanding enrollment in US-VISIT is a positive step forward in a process designed to further improve public safety and national security while ensuring the integrity of the immigration system," the DHS said in a statement. "Linking a person's biometric information to his or her travel documents reduces the risk that a traveler's identity or documents could be intentionally misused by someone attempting to gain entry into the United States."
The program has been controversial. Government auditors have concluded that US-VISIT has "significant information security control weaknesses that place sensitive and personally identifiable information at increased risk of unauthorized and possibly undetected disclosure and modification, misuse, and destruction." Privacy groups have called it the "most elaborate system of identification in the United States."
Some visitors to the U.S. will continue to remain exempt, including non-U.S. citizens younger than 14 or older than 79, as well as Canadian citizens on short-term visits under B visas. US-VISIT stands for United States Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology.
The program was implemented in 2003, but a report (PDF) released by the Government Accountability Office this month details the shortcomings of the program, noting that "program planning and execution limitations and weaknesses...confront DHS in its quest to deliver US-VISIT capabilities and value in a timely and cost-effective manner."
The report said the DHS has not taken action to address some of the program's risks, even though they have been known for years. While the department has taken many steps aimed at improving the management of US-VISIT, the report said, more needs to be done, or else "program performance, transparency, and accountability will suffer."
Privacy and security are two of the main challenges facing US-VISIT, its chief information officer said at a biometrics conference in October. However, the program has virtually erased the once-prominent problem of document fraud at U.S. borders, its director said.
The Department of Homeland Security has not announced any plans to fingerprint U.S. citizens at the border. When going through the green card process, current applicants are required to be fingerprinted.
CNET's Declan McCullagh contributed to this report.