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Friday, July 29, 2005

High-tech border pass raises alarm

Kingston’s closest U.S. border crossing will employ high-tech radio frequency technology to monitor visitors from other countries who want to enter the States from Canada – a move that alarms both a Kingston privacy expert and an immigration specialist.  The technology is part of US-VISIT, a billion-dollar anti-terrorism initiative launched last December that has kept about 700 criminals, including one posing as a Canadian, out of the States.

US-VISIT uses biometric information from photos and fingerprints taken from non-Canadians at border crossings to track residents from other countries who enter the U.S.  Travellers required to use the technology include landed immigrants living in Canada, Canadian citizens who are either engaged to a U.S. citizen or who have applied for a special business visa.  They’ll have to carry the wireless devices as a way for border guards to access the electronic information stored inside a document about the size of a large index card.  Visitors to the U.S. will get the card the first time they cross the border and will be required the carry the document on subsequent crossings to and from the States.

Border guards will be able to access the information electronically from 12 metres away to enable those carrying the devices to be processed more quickly.

Kimberly Weissman, spokeswoman for the US-VISIT program at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security told The Whig-Standard yesterday that the new devices can’t be tracked outside the border crossing area.  “The UHF frequency that we’ve chosen makes it impossible to locate a specific person.” 

But the use of the wireless technology raises alarm bells for Queen’s University law professor and privacy expert Art Cockfield.  “Often these technologies are introduced in a fairly minor form and then the technology is extended.What would be very troubling to me would be the tracking of visitors after they’ve crossed the border.”  Cockfield, who’s part of a Queen’s research group called the Globalization of Personal Data Team, said he’s so alarmed by these new devices that his team will likely investigate them further after learning about them yesterday.

Though the new devices don’t violate Canadian law, because visitors are under the jurisdiction of American law once inside the U.S., Cockfield said their use raises disturbing questions about how the technology may be used in the future.  “If we think we’re subject to government surveillance, that immediately changes our behaviour,” he said.  Sam Laldin of Kingston and District Immigrant Services also agrees that requiring non-Canadians to carry such electronic devices may deter some people from travelling to the U.S.

Posted on 07/29