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8 January, 2004

Intrusive new US visa regulations

From the BBC:

For the American Government there can never be too many checks. Air travel may now be more complex but the US administration is adamant it will not deter visitors from heading to the US.


Some, particularly US citizens, have asked what the fuss is about; it's just a matter of a few seconds, right? Unfortunately not.

The forthcoming change in US requirements means that passports obtained after October 2004 will need to contain biometric data such as an electronic record of the bearer's fingerprint(s) or iris pattern. However, the technology to record and encode these data won't enter use until mid-2005 at the earliest. This means that nationals of the 26 countries participating in the visa-waiver scheme (which is inherently racist in judging most Europeans 'safe' and those from elsewhere as automatically suspicious) will suddenly have to obtain visas after all.

This isn't a trivial matter. For someone in, say, Lancaster, N.W.England, that means a trip to London, several hundred miles away, to queue at the US embassy to obtain a visa for 67 (USA: $120). So that's an entire day and over $200 (visa, travel to London, food, etc.) spent before even starting a trip to the USA.
There's also a security concern: this will significantly increase queues at the embassy. Think about it: a US embassy, in the UK capital, surrounded by crowds of people; could a terrorist target be much more tempting? There's no way I'd put myself in that situation.

Quite simply, I don't have that much of a desire to visit the USA.

The following is a typical US comment:

"An additional fifteen seconds to have your finger prints scanned and your picture taken hardly seems an unreasonable delay to satisfy the government's need to provide security. If you are adamant that you don't want the US government knowing who you are when you enter, you obviously have something to hide and don't belong here anyway."

I don't want a foreign government - any foreign government - knowing more than the most basic details: who I am, and that I am a British subject, protected by that nation. Information required to verify my identity is absolutely fine, so I'd be entirely happy for an immigration officer to compare the photo in my passport with the face of the bearer (by eye or by biometric analysis), to check it's me. Similarly, I'd have no problem with an immigration officer checking my fingerprint against one stored electronically in my passport - so long as no record is kept.
If a computer is used to check the details on a passport against the physical parameters of someone claiming to be me, merely to prove I am who I claim to be, that's fine, but that's the limit of acceptability. If the computer goes on to research more about me or adds my details to a database, I object, and withhold my consent.
What use is to be made of that personal information? Who will have access to it? For what purposes? Where will it be stored? For how long? What accountability is there to me, not a citizen of that country?

It's not that I have anything to hide, it's that I feel no obligation to justify myself to a foreign government - they don't have the right to know, or make judgements on my lifestyle.
Another comment at the BBC website said: "if you've done nothing wrong why be afraid?", but what is the definition of 'wrong', and by whose standards is that decision to be made?

  • Is it suspicious that I've visited Poland (ex-Commie, y'know)?
  • Does my atheism make me questionable?
  • A long (male) ponytail doesn't really conform to good old family-orientated social norms, especially combined with size 10 (US:11, Eur:44) para boots. Does that mean I have to justify myself in some way?
  • In the past I've occasionally used cannabis - illegal in the USA; smoking anything seems near-illegal in California!
  • I used to trade unofficial concert recordings (for free) which is of borderline legality.
So, does any of this (plus points I'm unwilling to disclose) mean I've done something 'wrong'?
To paraphrase an admittedly flippant point made at the BBC site: "If you have nothing to hide, get a life."

Of course, all this presumes the new measures are even necessary, but other countries don't seem to agree. As was mentioned at the BBC website:

"Now that the UK government have defended the grounding of flight 223 to Washington, and the actions of the US government in applying additional security checks, can one assume that the UK government will now place similar procedures on flights and visitors to the UK? Surely if it is essential for the US to do this, then it must be essential for us too. So why are the government delaying its introduction? And if it isn't important or an effective deterrent, then why aren't the UK government protesting against the US government's actions?"

I was 'talking' about this in an online forum yesterday, and the point came up in discussion that if (if...) this I.D. verification is okay, it should be applied by and to all nations - including US citizens. Responses were interesting. Some agreed, saying it's only fair, and (allegedly) improves security for all, but one said "they wouldn't dare" and another said "but we're the good guys". Everyone is someone's good guy, and also, almost by definition, someone's bad guy.


There are some pretty hefty requirements for post 2004 passports: apparently there's biometric information required and the way it looks now, no countries will issue those in time for this change to work smoothly. The result will be, I imagine, if they don't change the policy: long queues at each and every american embassy around the world (people trying to get one off visas) and lots of lost business for the airlines....

Posted by Anders at January 9, 2004 10:00 PM
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