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Airport upgrades fingerprint tracking for foreigners

By Daniel Silliman

dsilliman@news-daily.com

Foreigners entering the United States will now go through a ten-finger check at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

Department of Homeland Security officials announced Friday the Atlanta airport has upgraded its fingerprint collection from two fingerprints to 10, in the roll-out of a nationwide attempt to increase security and speed up entry.

"The 10-fingerprint system is just an additional tool the officers use to do their jobs better," said Robert Gomez, director of U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, standing between two rows of officers checking foreigners fingerprints on Hartsfield's Concourse E.

The department has been collecting "biometrics" -- 10 digital fingerprints and a photograph -- from all visitors for about four years.

The new system was unveiled at Washington Dulles International Airport in November. Atlanta is the second port of entry to begin collecting biometrics, but officials said they expect all of the country's air and seaports to begin the checks by the end of 2008.

"Quite simply, this change gives our officers a more accurate idea of who is in front of them, " said Paul Morris, executive director of admissibility requirements and migration control for the customs office. "For legitimate visitors, the process becomes more efficient and their identities are better protected from theft. For those who may pose a risk, we will have greater insight into who they are," he added.

At the Hartsfield entryway for foreigners Friday afternoon, lines of people were presenting their passports to uniformed officials, and placing their fingers on a green glass screen for the digital fingerprint check.

The entrants first placed the four fingers of their right hand on the screen, then their right thumb, then the four fingers of their left hand, and then their left thumb. A small camera, mounted above the Cross Match Technologies L SCAN GUARDIAN, took their pictures and cross-checked it with their passport photos.

The customs officials asked the foreigners a few routine questions -- Where are you from? Where are you going? What are you doing there? -- the digital fingerprints were compared to a terrorist watch list, immigration violators and the Federal Bureau of Investigation's database of prints. The FBI database contains about 55 million sets of fingerprints, and the comparison is completed in "technological nanoseconds," according to Gomez.

Gregory Jones, Special Agent in Charge at the FBI's Atlanta Field Office, said the "digital fingerprints and photograph verify the visitors are who they say they are, and do not pose a threat to the homeland."

When the check is completed and the questions are answered, the customs agent stamps the appropriate pages. The sound of the ink stamp clanking down on passport pages echoed up and down the hall at customs Friday afternoon.

Gomez said the old system, checking only two fingerprints, was more than 98 percent accurate. This system, he said, increases that accuracy, but also speeds up the process and allows customs agents to check against latent and partial prints.

The program, called US-VISIT, was one of the first programs created in 2003 under the newly-formed Department of Homeland Security. The program was established to record and track the entry and exit of all travelers to the U.S., and has received more than $330 million in federal funding since 2004.