Canadians could face eye scans at border

Washington is turning to the next item on its security agenda: eye scans.

With the last of about 600 northern border radiation detectors having been installed at Trout River, N.Y., on the Quebec border, completing a continent-wide shield aimed at repelling the smuggling of nuclear bombs, dirty bombs and other malicious nuclear materials from Canada, every car, truck and passenger entering the United States by land from Canada is searched for nuclear weapons.

Now, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security proposes to spend billions of dollars collecting fingerprints and eye scans from all foreign travellers at U.S. airports as they leave the country.

Already, the United States demands biometric data, typically fingerprints and digital photos, from arriving air and sea travellers with visas. The chief aim is to try to ensure the person matches the individual who was given the visa overseas. Canadians and Mexicans are currently exempt.

Supporters of the proposed biometric exit check argue it will, among other things, enable officials to check a person’s biometrics against a watch list of known and suspected terrorists, criminals and immigration violators.

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Opponents, however, question the logic and expense of looking for terrorists leaving the country. The Washington Post, which reported the story yesterday, said the program would not operate “for now” at U.S. land borders.

Most experts believe there is a low probability that terrorists could muster the technical sophistication and complex planning needed to pull off a nuclear strike on U.S. soil, yet Osama bin Laden has made it clear that is al-Qaeda’s plan.

Even a small chance of that happening is one of the great worries of U.S. leaders and many security officials, magnified by the political strife in nuclear-armed Pakistan, where al-Qaeda’s core command has taken sanctuary.

Preventing terrorists from detonating a nuclear weapon in a major U.S. city is therefore a key national security priority, with more than US$3-billion spent since 2002 on nuclear monitors alone at Canadian and Mexican land border crossings and U.S. seaports.

Janet Napolitano, the U.S. Homeland Security Secretary, hails the completion of the Canadian component of the border radiation detectors, two months ahead of schedule, as a “major security milestone.

“This technology enhances our capability to guard against terrorism and criminal threats while expediting border crossings for lawful trade and travel,” she said in a statement.

However, the effectiveness of the U.S. radiation monitors is debatable.

The “non-intrusive” monitors are erected alongside the car-lane approaches to customs’ booth inspections, with larger monitors for transport trucks stationed in cargo inspection areas. Each detects certain types of energy within a limited area but not the exact radioactive source.

For that, a suspect vehicle is sent for a secondary inspection that includes a scan with a hand-held detection device to identify the source and whether it constitutes a threat. Benign emissions from lingering medical isotopes in people’s bodies, scrap metal, natural sources of radiation and even Kitty Litter trigger frequent false alarms.

Reducing them and the accompanying border-crossing delays with the current polyvinyl toluene (PVT) monitors would mean re-calibrating their detection threshold, or sensitivity. But uranium-235, which in a concentrated, highly enriched form becomes weapons-grade uranium, is already weak radioactively, and reducing the monitors’ threshold would make detection more difficult.

What’s more, PVT monitors can only detect unshielded or lightly shielded sources, which seems unrealistic, considering the sophisticated smuggling tactics determined nuclear terrorists would likely employ.

The United States is instead debating the cost-effectiveness of replacing PVT technology with “advanced spectroscopic portals” or ASP, a new type of portal monitor designed to both detect radiation and identify the source.

The U.S. Government Accounting Office reports that ASP monitors use more sophisticated software, and have a more extensive library of radiation signatures that may provide more consistent and rapid screening and may increase the likelihood of correct identification. But they’re also almost three times more expensive than PVT monitors.

In the meantime, the United States says the PVT monitors are now scanning 100% of all vehicle traffic entering from Canada and Mexico, plus all mail and courier packages from Mexico and a further 98% of all arriving seaborne container cargo.

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