Two million UK visa applicants a year will be fingerprinted under secret Home Office plans to crack down on illegal immigrants, criminals and terrorists, Scotland on Sunday can reveal.
Documents released in the United States prove that British officials have been examining the introduction of compulsory fingerprinting of all visa applicants before they are allowed to travel to the UK.
Under the plan, which has the strong support of Home Secretary David Blunkett, the prints would be stored and checked against international databases of terrorists and criminals to prevent undesirables travelling to Britain in the first place.
But the scheme was condemned last night by civil rights organisations, who said it was another step towards the Big Brother state, and pointed out that the UK objected to the proposed introduction of a similar scheme by the US to fingerprint British travellers.
The radical move to tighten the entry requirements for all visa applicants could also have dramatic repercussions for Scotland's attempts to attract hundreds of thousands of new citizens into the country to combat the economic impact of a continuing decline in population.
Last week the government announced plans to raise the cost of UK visas, in a move that could make migration to the UK even less attractive.
Documents obtained from the US State Department by Scotland on Sunday reveal that Home Office staff have spent months planning the move as part of a crackdown on illegal immigration and international terrorism. They have visited the US to gather information on similar measures imposed there on potential entrants.
Nick Astbury, deputy head of UK visas, which manages all 164 visa sections in UK embassies, high commissions and consulates around the world, met US officials last February "to talk about the use of fingerprints in visas".
In a confidential memo to Washington, the US ambassador in London, William Farish, alerted his bosses to Britain's plans to record the electronic fingerprints of visa applicants from selected areas on a trial basis.
Amid mounting warnings about the booming people-smuggling racket between China and the UK, the Home Secretary earmarked China as the pilot area for his first attempt at using biometric details on UK entrants. But, after being warned that the task was too big to be completed in time, he had to settle for trialling the technology on Sri Lanka instead.
Farish's memo added: "UK officials indicate the concept of capturing electronic fingerprints for all UK visa applications is under serious consideration." Astbury revealed that the government planned to "capture the fingerprint images and store them in a database, but not to store fingerprint images on the actual visa".
The prints of every visa applicant would be collected and cross-checked against existing databases during the application process to detect criminal suspects or those with alternative identities already in the system.
Visa holders would be forced to confirm their identities via an electronic finger scan on arrival in the UK.
Farish reported that "the political decision to incorporate fingerprints into UK visas was made at the highest level of the government", but he warned that ministers still faced significant hurdles - including where to find the millions of pounds needed to bankroll the huge system.
He added: "Many issues remain unresolved, including the possible need for enabling legislation to collect fingerprints and current legislative limits on visa fees, which are too low to recover costs for any large-scale fingerprint programme." Immigration minister Des Browne last week announced plans to raise visa fees by up to 300 per cent to cover spiralling costs, including the bill for deporting illegal immigrants.
But the government may have to find millions more to pay for Blunkett's planned crackdown on all visa applicants. A senior Home Office source last night confirmed : "It is an important area. We are doing our best to keep on top of asylum and terrorism and information is key to all this.
"We are already looking at developments across the board, and fingerprinting in all forms is an important part of that." But Shami Chakrabarti, director of the human rights group Liberty, said: "The fact of the matter is that it is easier for the government to impose these unreasonable restrictions when they can use the justification of terrorism and illegal asylum.
"It is even easier for them to justify it by starting with the most vulnerable. The government doesn't like the idea of British businessmen being fingerprinted when they want to visit America, but they appear happy to do exactly the same to foreigners coming to this country." Chakrabarti said the government was now building up enormous databases without adequate justification. "We do not object to some checks, but we cannot allow this sort of thing to go on without explanation," she told Scotland on Sunday.
"Why would they want this data; who would they share it with; how long would they keep it; would it ever be destroyed?" The Home Office already collects fingerprints of all asylum-seekers arriving in Britain and checks them against a European Union system called Eurodacs, designed to identify arrivals who have already made claims in other countries.
British officials have also received comprehensive information, demonstrations and advice about incorporating new technology from the Americans' 'laser visa' system, and their face-recognition software into the UK network.
But the government complained bitterly in 2002, when the US announced that UK nationals would be among those facing stricter entry requirements, including the demand for 'machine-readable' passports carrying biometric information including fingerprints.
The issue of enhancing identity checks and government population records has proved incendiary in recent years, as Blunkett has pursued attempts to improve the authorities' knowledge of who enters Britain and who is already here.
A succession of proposals to collect more information on British citizens and visitors have run into protests from politicians and human-rights campaigners - most notably the plan for a compulsory identity card, which was eventually thrown out amid complaints that it was intrusive and too expensive.
Blunkett is pressing ahead with a voluntary trial of an ID card using biometric data including iris-scanning, and he has also successfully piloted controversial schemes, including the national DNA database.