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.
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 www.schneier.com.