Terrorists who alter their fingerprints have about an even chance of slipping past U.S. border watch-list checks because the government is using a two-fingerprint system instead of one that relies on all 10 prints, a lawmaker said in a letter he made public yesterday to Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge.
Rep. Jim Turner (D-Tex.) wrote that a study by researchers at Stanford University concluded the two-finger system "is no more than 53 percent effective in matching fingerprints with poor image quality against the government's biometric terrorist watch-list." Turner said the system falls far short of keeping the country secure.
"It's going to be a coin toss as to whether we can identify terrorists," Turner, the ranking member of the House Select Committee on Homeland Security, said in an interview yesterday. "It's a 50-50 chance, and that's not good enough."
Turner's Oct. 15 letter comes as government officials supervising the burgeoning border security system, known as US-VISIT, have been touting their use of fingerprints for identifying people crossing the border and checking them against watch lists of suspected terrorists.
The US-VISIT program aims to create a "virtual border" using computer networks, databases, fingerprints and other biometric identifiers. The program requires foreign visitors to register their names before traveling to the United States and have their fingerprints checked when they arrive and depart. Officials estimate the system could cost up to $10 billion and take a decade to build.
The border security program is relying on technology first developed for a program at the former Immigration and Naturalization Service called IDENT. Government officials have known for years that IDENT did not work well with the identification system used by the Justice Department, a 10-fingerprint system called the Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System. That system is known for producing good results, even with poor-quality fingerprint images, Turner's letter said.
But homeland security officials have told Congress they decided to use the IDENT system for the first phase of US-VISIT as a way to quickly improve security at the borders, and move to a 10-fingerprint system later. "It was a logistical issue we had to deal with," said Robert A. Mocny, deputy director of US-VISIT. "It will get better. . . . It's a matter of what we can do right now."
Turner's letter said the Department of Homeland Security ignored numerous warnings from the "government's top biometric scientists" that the "two-fingerprint system could not accurately perform watch list searches and the ten-fingerprint system was far preferable."
The letter quotes Stanford researcher Lawrence M. Wein, who said his study found that at best, with a software fix, the two-finger system would properly identify only about three of four people. Two weeks ago, Wein told the Homeland Security Committee that the "implications of our findings are disturbing."
Turner accused homeland security officials of failing to be "more forthcoming" about the limitations of their approach. Turner asked Ridge to direct homeland security officials to "preserve all documents and electronic communications" relating to their decision on fingerprints.
"I understand your desire to deploy biometric screening at our borders as quickly as possible," Turner said in his letter. "But more than three years after the 9/11 attacks, we have invested more than $700 million in an entry-exit system that cannot reliably do what the Department so often said it would: Use a biometric watch-list to keep known terrorists out of the country."
A spokesman for the Republican-controlled Homeland Security Committee, Ken Johnson, said the release of Turner's letter was driven by election-year politics. Johnson acknowledged that there are "some concerns" with the current system, but he said US-VISIT continues to evolve. "In a perfect world, where money is not an issue, and people wouldn't mind spending countless hours or days at the border, the 10-fingerprint system would be preferable. But that's not reality," Johnson said. "They're playing politics with some very sensitive issues."