FBI Now Has Easier Access to DHS Visitor Files

The US department of homeland security has given the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) direct access to its two databases for tracking foreign visitors.

All information collected under SEVIS and US-VISIT - from name and date of birth to the complete address of your US destination along with a digital photo and digital fingerprints - will be directly available to the FBI, the investigative arm of the US department of justice.

The Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) is a computerised system that maintains and manages data about foreign students and exchange visitors during their stay in the US.

The US Visitor and Immigration Status Indication Technology System (US-VISIT) involves collecting biographic, travel information and biometric identifiers (like fingerprints), used to verify the identity of foreign nationals at US borders.

The change follows a recommendation by the commission that investigated the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the US. Previously, the FBI was required to ask DHS for any information it needed from the two databases, but following the September 14 decision, this will no longer be necessary.

"Because the FBI has always had access to this data - albeit indirectly through DHS - this change will have little practical impact on the way international visitors are treated," said Terry Hartle, senior VP, American Council on Education, a co-ordinating body for higher education institutions in the US.

"However, the symbolic effects of this decision could be far reaching. Symbolically, it conveys yet another signal that the US isn't as welcoming to international visitors as we have been in the past, and that is quite unfortunate," he said.

A document termed 'Privacy Impact Assessment' for US-VISIT, issued by DHS, notes that US-VISIT is modifying the method by which it shares information by providing the FBI direct access.

"A memoranda of understanding establishing limits on access, use, disclosure and disposition will be put in place to strictly govern these interfaces in order to minimise any privacy impacts," it notes. A similar statement for SEVIS is also being put together.