Chertoff told a meeting of technology vendors this week that the coming deployment of 10-digit fingerprint readers at U.S. consulates and ports of entry would enable visitors to be checked not just against name-based terror watch-lists, but databases of latent fingerprints left by terrorists on weapons or in safe houses.
He called it "exactly the kind of 21st century tool that will give us a measure of protection at our borders that has never been dreamed of in the history of this country."
He said the new readers, which will replace the existing two-print finger scanners starting next year, would allow foreign visitors and visa applicants to be checked "not only against our existing databases to see whether they have been here before under a different name or whether there is a criminal record in this country or internationally against them," but also "against latent prints lifted from around the world in terrorist safe houses or on battlefields."
But he warned that the technology to realize the vision of a seamless biometric border -- and the interoperable databases that would enable state and local police to check the immigration status and history of anyone they arrest -- was not yet ready for primetime.
"The job is not yet done. We're just at the beginning in terms of making sure we have actually operationally viable 10-print capture equipment that can be used in the kind of rushed environment that, frankly, we face at our ports of entry," he said.
The Department of Homeland Security released a transcript of the speech Tuesday.
The United States currently uses inkless digital finger scanners to check two prints to confirm the identity of every foreigner applying for a visa, arriving at an air or sea port, or presenting a visa at a land border -- a system dubbed U.S.-VISIT, for Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology.
Chertoff said the switch to 10-print technology will take U.S.-VISIT "to the next level, to get the unknown threat as well as the known threat," and bring the department's immigration fingerprint database, known as IDENT, closer to compatibility with the national law enforcement finger print database, called IAFIS.
He said pilot programs in Boston and Dallas were providing "state and local agencies access to biometric-based information about a person's immigration history from IDENT for the very first time."
But he warned that the industry executives that their products would need to be "robust ... operationally sound, and (able to) ... deal with the wear and tear of ordinary life."
"The critical test for all technology is not what you can do in the laboratory, but it's what you can do in the field," he said.
Nonetheless, he laid out an aggressive timetable for implementation, saying the State Department had already begun tests of 10-print technologies at its consulates in San Salvador, El Salvador; London, England; and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
Other officials confirmed later that the State Department plans to deploy fingerprint-scanning units to about 300 locations worldwide by the end of fiscal 2007.
Homeland security plans to ask early next year for bids to provide devices for pilots next summer, according to Government Computer News. The department aims to make a final decision early in fiscal 2008, and then field about 3,000 of the devices that year, the publication said.
Critics charge that U.S.-VISIT is crippled by the absence of a comprehensive exit portion. Although everyone's arrival is catalogued, there is no systematic collection of biometric data from visitors leaving and thus no way of flagging a warning for those who overstay their visas, for example.
Despite a series of pilots launched over almost three years, the Department of Homeland Security has yet to work out how to make sure people register as they leave.
The experiments -- at 12 airports, two seaports and five land ports -- had poor results according a recent report in the newsletter Washington Technology.
Airports lack "infrastructure, personnel and space for installing and operating exit control stations," the newsletter said. It quoted an anonymous executive saying that requesting passengers to "check out" at portable stand-alone kiosks had produced compliance rates "more than 50 percent, but not in the 80s or 90s."
Tests of radio frequency identification, or RFID, technology at the land border also snagged, said Washington Technology. The department tried attaching RFID tags to the exit form stapled in visitors' passports, known as the I-94, issuing nearly 150,000 tagged documents.
"However," the newsletter reported, "in practice, the test presented numerous technical challenges in correctly recording I-94 forms that may be tucked into a briefcase or pocket or carried in vehicles traveling up to 50 miles per hour, the executive said."