US-VISIT Is No Bargain

By Bruce Schneier  |  Posted 2004-07-06 Print this article Print

Opinion: US-VISIT fails to provide adequate security against terrorists.

In the wake of the U.S. Department of Homeland Securitys awarding of its largest contract, for a system to fingerprint and to keep tabs on foreign visitors in the United States, it makes sense to evaluate our countrys response to terrorism. Are we getting good value for all the money that were spending?

US-VISIT is a government program to help identify the 23 million foreigners who visit the United States every year. It includes capturing fingerprints and taking photographs of all the visitors and building a database to store all this data. Citizens of 27 countries, mostly in Europe, who dont need a visa to enter the United States are exempt. And visitors from those countries are expected to have passports with biometric data encoded on them in a few years.

The contract for the next phase of the US-VISIT program costs $15 billion. It also has other costs: convenience, privacy, civil liberties and distraction from the greater danger of other terrorist threats.

Despite its costs, US-VISIT doesnt offer us much security in return. Securing airports and seaports intercepts only visitors attempting to enter legally. We have a 5,500-mile-long border with Canada and a 2,000-mile-long border with Mexico. Each year, 200,000 to 300,000 people enter the country illegally from Mexico.

For more on US-VISIT, check out John Pallattos column "What Price Security? US-VISIT." Even if we could fully seal our borders, fingerprinting every visitor wouldnt keep terrorists out. The 9/11 terrorists would not have been deterred by this system; many of them entered the country legally with valid passports and visas.

At the same time, US-VISIT will alienate and stigmatize the very people we need as allies in our country: honest resident foreigners. We want people to go to the police when they see something suspicious in their communities without fear of being detained. US-VISIT is the sort of large-scale surveillance system we should be suspicious about.

As security users, we must ask if this is the smartest way to spend $15 billion. Would we be smarter to spend our money hiring Arabic translators for the FBI and the CIA or on emergency response capabilities in our cities and towns? We must make choices. America doesnt have infinite money or freedoms. If were going to sacrifice some of each to get security, we must make smart choices to get the most security we can.

Politicians like big-ticket security programs because their expense demonstrates that the pols are addressing the issue. In this election year, were being asked to choose leaders who can best steer our country through these dangerous times. We must act like smart security users. Instead of blindly following political advertising, we need to consider trade-offs and alternatives. Otherwise, were going to pay more than we need to, and were going to get less security than we deserve.

Bruce Schneier is chief technology officer of Counterpane Internet Security Inc. and the author of "Beyond Fear: Thinking Sensibly About Security in an Uncertain World." Schneiers Web site is at

Check out eWEEK.coms Security Center at for the latest security news, reviews and analysis.

Be sure to add our developer and Web services news feed to your RSS newsreader or My Yahoo page


Internationally-renowned security technologist and author Bruce Schneier is both a Founder and the Chief Technical Officer of Counterpane Internet Security, Inc. He established the Company with Tom Rowley to address the critical need for strong, cost-effective, and resilient network security. Counterpane Internet Security, Inc. provides Managed Security Monitoring services to organizations world-wide. Outsourced security monitoring provides a level of security unattainable through conventional security products.

Schneier is responsible for maintaining the Company's technical lead in world-class information security technology and its practical and effective implementation. Schneier's security experience makes him uniquely qualified to shape the direction of the company's research endeavors, as well as to act as a spokesperson to the business community on e-commerce issues and solutions.

While president of Counterpane Systems, Schneier designed and analyzed hardware and software cryptographic systems, advised sophisticated clients on products and markets, and taught technical as well as business courses related to the field of cryptography. Concerns as diverse as Microsoft, Citibank, and the National Security Agency, have all relied upon Schneier's unique expertise. Schneier designed the popular Blowfish encryption algorithm. And Schneier's Twofish was a finalist for the new Federal Advanced Encryption Standard (AES).

Schneier is the author of six books, including Secrets &, Lies: Digital Security in a Networked World. Published in October 2000, ",Secrets &, Lies", has already sold 70,000 copies. One of his earlier books, Applied Cryptography, now in its second edition, is the seminal work in its field and has sold over 130,000 copies worldwide. He currently writes the free email newsletter ",Crypto-Gram,", which has over 60,000 readers. He has presented papers at many international conferences, and he is a frequent writer, contributing editor, and lecturer on the topics of cryptography, computer security, and privacy. Schneier served on the board of directors of the International Association for Cryptologic Research, and is an Advisory Board member for the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

Schneier holds an MS degree in computer science from American University and a BS degree in physics from the University of Rochester.


Submit a Comment

Loading Comments...
Manage your Newsletters: Login   Register My Newsletters

Rocket Fuel