Countries continue to adopt technological means of supporting border and immigration officials' decisions about what travelers pose risks or are barred by law, making biometrics the norm and not the exception.
Malaysia, which pioneered the use of biometric passports, credits them with reducing passport theft in 2007. Nigeria has had difficulty keeping up with demand for them this year.
The US-VISIT system, an automated entry-exit tracking system that collects biographical and biometric data from foreign nationals, began the tidal wave of change toward biometric-based border screening systems when it launched in January 2004.
In November, Japan began its own US-VISIT-style program of fingerprinting, photographing, and questioning foreign citizens every time they enter Japan. The country's 2.1 million foreign residents will eventually be included.
Also in November, the United Kingdom announced a GBP1.2 billion program to strengthen offshore border controls with new passenger screening technology. The electronic border security system will check all UK-bound passengers against immigration, customs, and police watch lists. The country boasts that successful trials of the new system have already led to the capture of more than 1,000 criminals.
Technology systems, however, raise privacy concerns and tensions among countries when standards differ. Since the early 1980s, the European Union has set standards for privacy protections of EU citizens' data. These are considerably tougher than those adopted by the United States as it has sought to tighten airline security and identify and track terrorists post-9/11.
But governments have been forced to compromise in order to keep airlines flying. The U.S. Aviation and Transportation Security Act of November 2001 mandates that airlines operating passenger flights to, from or through the United States provide U.S. authorities, upon request, with electronic access to passenger name records (PNRs) contained in their reservation and departure control systems.
EU citizens' data — specifically PNRs containing travel itineraries, payment details, and other information that comprises "travel intelligence" — became less private in July when the European Union and the United States signed a long-term agreement fulfilling the requirements of the 2001 U.S. law.
Under the new agreement, which becomes effective January 1, 2008, the European Union will actively push 19 PNR data elements (of approximately 60) to a system run by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS). DHS will no longer pull PNR data from air carriers' reservation/departure control systems.
In addition, DHS will now keep the data for seven years in an active database and for eight years thereafter in an inactive status, accessing it only in exceptional circumstances and under strict conditions. However, these terms remain undefined.
The European Union sees PNRs as a useful tool for its own security, too. In November, the European Commission proposed a Council Decision Framework on the use of PNRs for law enforcement purposes. The idea is to upgrade and harmonize national efforts obligating air carriers making international flights to share passenger information in advance of their flights.
Whether the U.S.-EU agreement stabilizes travel-security-related diplomacy and pays off more in counterterrorism, crime control, and immigration management than its political cost to U.S.-EU relations remains to be seen.