New technology drives changes in border policy

The infrastructure at border crossings and other points of entry to the United States will look completely different in the next few years, driven in part by new technologies, a senior Homeland Security Department official said on Wednesday.

"We're halfway through restructuring our border policy," said Stewart Verdery, assistant secretary for policy and planning at Homeland Security's directorate on border and transportation security. "In a couple of years, [crossing the border] is going to be a hell of a lot different than it is today." Verdery made the comments after a speech to the Heritage Foundation.

But changes may not happen as quickly as Congress and some others want. Verdery said only three or four nations appear to be on track to complying with a law requiring that they implement biometric-readable passports to enter the United States by late October 2004. He said Homeland Security is working with Congress on the possibility of changing that deadline.

"We know we couldn't meet the deadline ... if it applied to us," Verdery said.

The Bush administration also is looking at possible changes to requirements for U.S. and Canadian citizens crossing the northern U.S. border. Currently, passports are not required for that border. "We're in the initial stages of this," Verdery said. "It's a very tricky issue."

One possibility is to expand the new "smart card" technology program known as Nexis for pre-cleared, regular border crossers, he said. Other changes include "smart" containers that reveal any tampering and a system for clearing shipments well before arrival.

Verdery also addressed questions about privacy and the use of counter-terrorist intelligence to nab common criminals identified along the way, the early success of which has "whet our appetite" for more uses. He highlighted the use of the new, electronic immigrant-tracking system in apprehending two criminals after their fingerprints and facial scans matched crime lists.

Verdery said that the use of counter-terrorism technologies for non-terrorist criminals is decided on a system-by-system basis but that law enforcement agencies are very much involved.

But the uses of computer system for pre-screening airline passengers that is near completion "is a different animal," he said, because it will involve U.S. citizens' personal data as well.

Jim Harper, editor of Privacilla.org, which tracks privacy policy, said using the airline system for common criminals "is not just a privacy problem; it's a due-process problem." Citizens have a right to travel and not be searched or seized without suspicion, he said, adding that government officials "have to do some deep thinking about the program."

Verdery said he traveled to Brussels, Belgium, last week to try to finalize an agreement with European officials on sharing European Union citizens' data with U.S. authorities.

The European Commission on Wednesday adopted a proposal for a regulation to harmonize security standards, including biometrics, for EU citizens' passports using facial imaging. Additional proposals for visas and residence permits would require facial images and fingerprints. The proposal now goes to the EU Council of Ministers and the European Parliament.

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