Ridge seeks fingerprints on passports
WASHINGTON -- Americans' fingerprints should be added to their passports, outgoing Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said Wednesday, hoping to include the United States in a growing global security standard but risking a privacy fight at home.
Ridge said passports could ideally include biometric finger scans - for all 10 fingers - to help customs officials quickly and accurately identify U.S. travelers. He offered no details on how the plan might deal with privacy concerns or guard against international identity theft.
"If we're going to ask the rest of the world to put fingerprints on their passports, we ought to put our fingerprints on our passports," Ridge said in a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies before heading overseas to talk about security ties with the European Union.
"Now, culturally, historically, there are a lot of reasons that some countries are averse or very reluctant to give people finger scans," Ridge said. He said that by offering assurances that use would be limited and benefits would be significant, "we could get the world to move more quickly toward a common international standard."
The department has no immediate proposal to add fingerprints to U.S. passports, spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said. Ridge is scheduled to step down Feb. 1.
The U.S. government began fingerprinting and photographing visitors from other counties - including staunch allies - after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. Most nations cautiously supported the added scrutiny, but Brazil last year retaliated by fingerprinting and photographing arriving Americans, delaying their travel for hours.
Including Americans' fingerprints on their passports also is a subject of debate within the U.S. government. The State Department will begin issuing new electronic or biometric passports within a few months, containing a microchip holding a citizen's name, birth date and photo. But while the chip will be able to include fingerprints, none are planned at this point.
At issue is the extent the passport chips would be encrypted to prevent government snooping or identity theft. The Bush administration has so far resisted encrypting digital passport information, which could prevent international customs officials from reading the data.
But privacy advocates say such personal information can be read from as far away as 30 feet by using sophisticated data readers.
"Without good encryption, there's a big risk of biometric pollution," said Peter P. Swire, an Ohio State University law professor who served as the Clinton administration's chief privacy counselor. "That can breed identity theft because now the bad guys can forge your fingerprint as well as your Social Security number. You can change your Social Security number, but it's really hard to change your thumbprint."
The debate comes in the wake of the Sept. 11 Commission report, which highlighted falsified passports as a serious problem for national security.
House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Chris Cox said Wednesday he agrees with the need for an international passport standard that could include fingerprint data, but he also said protective encryption "is essential. It is not an expense."
Even with encryption measures, many people are sure to object to having their fingerprints added to a government database.
"People are going to feel that they're being surveyed as they never have been before," said Ari Schwartz, associate director of the Center for Democracy and Technology in Washington. "And there is going to be an active concern about that."
AP Diplomatic Writer Barry Schweid contributed to this report.