Inaccurate databanks pose challenge for new visitor tracking system

The Homeland Security Department is undertaking a massive effort to integrate more than two dozen criminal and terrorist databanks as part of a new immigration tracking system, but some immigration advocates fear inaccurate information will cause problems for people entering the country.

The department plans to integrate 27 different biographical databases and one biometric database this year to make the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology (US VISIT) program work, said Robert Mocny, the program's deputy director. US VISIT was launched Monday at 115 airports and 14 ship terminals, and requires visitors with nonimmigrant visas to give biographic and travel information, two fingerprint scans and a digital photograph, before being allowed to enter the country.

Information from visitors is vetted against databases from other agencies, such as the Terrorist Threat Integration Center, which is composed of elements from the CIA, FBI, DHS and Defense Department. Mocny said DHS plans to award a contract to Lockheed Martin, Computer Sciences Corporation or Accenture by the end of May to integrate databases across government agencies so border inspectors can effectively screen visitors.

"We now have an opportunity to modify how people come into the U.S., how long they stay, how we verify whether or not they did their part and what happens to them while they're here," Mocny said. "We have not had the opportunities and the funding to back those opportunities in the years past."

However, immigration advocates fear that existing databases are riddled with inaccuracies that will cause some visitors to be unfairly targeted.

A representative from the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee said during a briefing on US VISIT this week that databanks at the terrorist screening center are notorious for being inaccurate.

Judith Golub, senior director of advocacy and public affairs for the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said she is particularly concerned because FBI records do not have to comply with accuracy regulations under the 1974 Privacy Act.

Last March, the FBI announced that it was exempting databases within its National Crime Information Center, Central Records System and National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime from accuracy requirements of the Privacy Act. The agency said the exemptions were necessary because "it is impossible to determine in advance what information is accurate, relevant, timely and complete."

Golub said visitors to the U.S. might find their information being vetted against inaccurate FBI data, causing confusion and detentions.

FBI spokesman Paul Bresson confirmed Wednesday that the exemptions are in place. He said many law enforcement agencies seek similar exemptions, and the FBI did not receive a single comment when it originally announced the exemptions. He said it is "administratively impossible" to ensure the accuracy of all records entered into FBI databases because, for example, more than 80,000 officials are authorized to use the NCIC.

However, he stressed that the FBI "strongly encourages" all users to enter accurate and timely information.

"While we do have these exemptions, by no means should anyone get the impression that we are relaxing our position on the timeliness and accuracy of records," Bresson said. "We feel that is extremely important. And, of course, the more accurate and timely information is, the more effective law enforcement can be."

Mocny acknowledged that existing databases have inaccurate information, such as misspelled names and incorrect biographical data. He said the department believes that an integrated database of biometrical information, such as fingerprint scans, will greatly reduce the number of false identifications while increasing positive identifications. For example, 21 people have been caught to date for giving false biographical information when their fingerprints were vetted through the US VISIT program, he noted.

"As we can increase the number of biometrics stored within the system, that really begins to cut down the number of false hits that we get," Mocny said.

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