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Tuesday, June 6, 2006


Should Japan fingerprint foreigners?

Two views of a pressing issue


Immigration's new system will make us safer

News photo

Over the protests of human-rights activists and groups like the Japan Federation of Bar Associations, Japan recently amended its Immigration Control Law to require that all foreigners (except "special" permanent residents) be photographed and fingerprinted when entering the country beginning November 2007. The plan mimics the "U.S.-Visit" program in the United States, which has been in place since late 2003.

News photo

The most vigorous arguments against the plan attack its use of fingerprints.

Even Nichibenren suggests that if the plan must be adopted, it should drop fingerprinting. Why? Because in Japan, public authorities' only use of fingerprints is in criminal investigations, they say, and therefore it violates one's dignity.

Indeed, all criminals are fingerprinted, but that doesn't mean all people fingerprinted are criminals. The "green cards" of permanent resident foreigners in the U.S. have shown their fingerprint for decades. People in high-security or sensitive jobs are fingerprinted, too.

Some countries require fingerprints for passports now, and many more are proposing such a measure. Fingerprints are being used for biometric ID on ATMs and even cell phones for online transactions.

Clearly their role has evolved far beyond just crime investigations. And as their use continues to diversify, public feelings are likely to evolve toward a neutral view, too.

Fingerprints are just one form of biometric identification. Ironically, they are not even the most widely-used form, even in law enforcement. That throne belongs to photographs, which are in many ways much more "personal" data than fingerprints.

Yet you don't hear anyone complaining that being photographed is "degrading" or "makes them feel like a criminal."

In the end, when public safety is at stake, worrying about hurting people's feelings is just not good policy. Airline security, for example, with its body pat-downs and shoe removal almost seems designed to violate one's dignity. It's unpleasant, yes, but necessary.

Other criticism of the program has focused on suggestions that it won't be effective in preventing terrorists from entering Japan, that it will be too costly, and that it violates the "dignity" of travelers. But are these convincing arguments for abandoning the plan at a time when the risks from terrorism are clear?

For starters, critics of Japan's plan suggest it simply won't work. After all, they point out, the 9/11 terrorists were in the U.S. legally. While true, keep in mind they traveled extensively around the world before coming to the U.S. Had such a program been in place years before, it may have stopped them.

Another hole seems to be the program's inability to stop a terrorist who lacks a criminal record, since it relies on database lookups to identify people. That, too, is true, but no one is suggesting that this program will perfectly prevent all terror.

That's impossible, especially when the terrorist is willing to sacrifice their own life. Still, even if an attack is carried out, the data provided by a program like this can be valuable after-the-fact in tracking down the organizations responsible, and thereby preventing future incidents.

What's more, terrorists aren't the only ones that may be snared. According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (USDHS), since January 2004, over 1,000 visa violators and other criminals have been arrested through the U.S.-Visit program. And keeping people like that out is in the public's interest.

For fiscal 2007, the U.S.-Visit program will spend roughly $400 million. Developing the program cost another $1.5 billion. Japan -- which has far fewer ports of entry and international visitors than the U.S. -- could probably get by on a third to a quarter of that amount.

Is it worth it? The direct costs from 9/11 in property destruction and rescue efforts have been estimated at a whopping $27 billion. Medium-term, the impact on the U.S. economy due to drops in travel and tourism, increased insurance premiums and other effects is said to have been about $500 billion. And of course, the "cost" of the thousands of lives lost can never be measured.

Indeed, 9/11 was an exceptional case. But given that U.S.-Visit's budget is less than 1 percent of the total outlays of the USDHS, it doesn't seem like an unreasonable expenditure in light of its antiterrorism goal.

A government's primary responsibility is to protect its citizens. Fingerprinting all foreign travelers will help do just that by creating a database that will help keep terrorists and criminals out of the country.

What's more, shared with law enforcement agencies globally, it can be a powerful tool to help reduce the very real threat posed by international terrorism.


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