Merchant Seamen Will be Fingerprinted at U.S. Ports

Dubai: Merchant mariners from the UAE and other countries whose ships call at American ports will soon be fingerprinted as part of ongoing measures to safeguard its borders, according to an official from the US Department of Homeland Security.

Currently, sailors manning commercial ships that dock in US seaports only show their seamen's book when they disembark from their ship and are not fingerprinted.

"Currently, all cruise line passengers are fingerprinted at special kiosks after their ships dock into, say, Miami. But merchant mariners are not. This is something we'll be working on in the foreseeable future," said Robert A. Mocny, deputy director of the visitors' programme at the US Department of Homeland Security based in Virginia.

He was attending a key security conference in Dubai yesterday.

Security at US ports have hit the headlines recently following the row over Dubai Ports World's acquisition of six US ports previously operated by Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Co, the world's third-largest port operator and considered an icon of the old British empire.

"We're closely looking at a mobile seaport fingerprinting system from our budget and operational perspectives as a logical step in preventing people with intent to harm us from entering the country," Mocny added. "The idea is to have end-to-end biometric identification infrastructure for enforcement and service delivery efficiency."

The American government, through the US Department of Homeland Security and the US National Nuclear Security Administration, has recently contracted Hong Kong-based Hutchison Whampoa Ltd to manage detectors that scan containers in the Bahamas destined for the US as a nuclear safeguard before the cargo reaches the American shoreline.

The Bush administration is also negotiating a second contract for a Philippine company to install radiation detectors in its home country. Mocny said different technologies are being evaluated at the moment involving mobile fingerprinting gear equipped with cameras that will be used at both seaports and airports.

The United States's once-mighty merchant fleet has been largely bought by foreign companies during the 1990s Singapore's Neptune Orient Lines snapped up APL (better known as American President Lines) and Denmark's Maersk purchased Sea-Land from CSX Corp.

About 350 million people travel in and out of the US every year, through more than 300 ports of entry and there are currently 11 million people staying in the US illegally, he said.

Mocny, however, assured safeguards against 'Big Brother' scenarios are in place to prevent abuses of biometric data in their possession.

He told Gulf News: "We have to strike a balance between security and privacy concerns. Our goal is to enhance security for citizens and visitors, and provide a safe environment for them; facilitate legitimate travel and tourism; ensure visitors do not overstay their visas and protect the privacy of visitors with such safeguards as the Privacy Act."

Mocny is currently in Dubai for the two-day conference, the fourth Middle East Biometrics Summit which gathers international experts and industry professionals in biometrics, information security and smart cards.

Vinay Akhil, country manager for Utah-based networking company Novell, said mobile biometrics equipment was at the cutting edge of security technology. He added: "The technology and infrastructure is available to be able to catch bad guys at the borders. It's just a question of putting them together."

During his visit, Mocny said he is impressed by the UAE's iris recognition technology that uses 130 eye scanners at sea, airports and land borders to keep people banned from the UAE from re-entering the country. He also lauded the UAE's burgeoning tourism sector in which 20 million people pass through its airports each year.

<<Gulf News -- 03/29/06>>