Friday, May 29, 2009

Why you shouldn't get your US domestic news from Australian papers

Instapundit and Slashdot (and probably others) are featuring a story about Homeland Security scanning the fingerprints of travellers leaving the US.

Unfortunately, the story, from an Australian IT outlet, made serious errors. It claimed incorrectly that US citizens would be fingerscanned. It also succumbed to the assumption that any idea that can be made to sound like creepy and dumb security must have been the brainchild of the Bush Administration, accepted only reluctantly by the new administration.

In fact, the requirement for fingerprints on exit was first put in law in 1996, was recommended again by the 9/11 Commission, and was also included in the 9/11 implementation act. Despite this, the Bush administration was always a little ambivalent about the requirement -- mainly because the requirement is not a security measure.

Departing travelers are, well, departing. If they're terrorists, they've had their chance to attack us already.

Plus we already get passport data on departing passengers. Getting fingerprints too just makes the identification a little more certain, so the error rate goes down two or three percent. Since fingerprints are a hassle for everyone, and expensive, the Bush administration was pushed by Congress into gathering prints on exit. Congress has in essence said that Poland and other candidate countries will not be eligible for visa-free travel unless the Administration implements prints-on-exit.

Congress wants the prints because some in Congress believe visa-free travelers overstay their 90-day travel permission and become illegal immigrants. If people must check in and then check out, Congress believes, we could track down the ones who don't check out and deport them. Even if overstays from this group were a big problem, and in the scheme of things it probably isn't (these are travelers from developed countries, after all), it isn't particularly cost-effective to create a big program just so we'll have marginally more accurate check-out records. What exactly will we do with the newly improved list of people who didn't leave on time? It wasn't likely that the Bush administration would find the resources to track down every overstaying backpacker from Japan, and it's even less likely that the Obama administration would treat that as a priority. So we're perfecting a bookkeeping system that probably will never be used in the fashion that Congress envisions.

My guess is that the Obama administration is setting up fingerscan pilots for the same reason that the Bush administration probably would have -- to preserve the option of bringing new countries into the visa-free travel program. But the idea that this is some Bush administration plot foisted on the new guys is a figment of Aussie media imagination.

1 comment:

Rykehaven said...

"Unfortunately, the story, from an Australian IT outlet, made serious errors."

While we're talking about IT, a correction of your own is in order: what you've just described is not an "error", nor is it a "mistake".

An "error" is a natural, systemic variance in nature. When applied to human behavior/ergonomics/human interface, it is regarded as an INVOLUNTARY variance from an established protocol, a phenomenon of statistical dispersion inherent in all systems.

A "mistake" is the bug itself, or UNDESIRED feature, in the system design and protocol, and unlike an "error", it can be corrected to remove the feature.

What you have just described here is neither an "error" nor a "mistake", but a DELIBERATE decision to "make things up", deception being the DESIRED feature of the author.