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Will the U.S. Government protect my personal information against abuse?

Many countries around the world have strong privacy laws to provide protection against the abuse of personal information. The U.S. Privacy Act is designed to protect the privacy of Americans. Foreigners have no rights.

VISIT will collect and retain biographic, travel, and biometric information on all visitors. The purpose of this collection is to identify people who are believed to potentially pose a threat to the security of the U.S., are known or believed to have violated the terms of their admission to the U.S., or who are wanted in connection with a criminal act in the U.S. or elsewhere. This information will be shared with "other law enforcement agencies at the federal, state, local, foreign, or tribal level" who "need access to the information in order to carry out their law enforcement duties."1

This personal information will be retained for 75 to 100 years. It is kept alongside data collected from nationals of countries that threaten to wage war, or are or were at war with the United States.2

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) claims that it will protect privacy in accordance with its privacy policy. It claims that its Privacy Impact Assessment is widely heralded. This is not true. The flawed policy was released moments before the VISIT system went live in January.

When VISIT first began, there were no rights of redress for individuals who faced any sort of adverse consequences.3 Following an outcry by legal and civil rights advocates there is now a limited appeal process, including a human review of the fingerprint matching process, and provision for some correction of faulty information. These reforms however do not help in the case of expedited removal of individuals. Given that incomplete information is used to make decisions on visitors this situation is likely to occur increasingly.4

The implementation of US VISIT should be considered against the backdrop of existing travesties of justice at border entry points. Many people have been shackled and returned home immediately without due process of law because of problematic visa-status. There are other reasons, however hard they are to decipher. Consider the case of Mohamed Arar, a Syrian-born Canadian citizen. On a return trip to Canada that included a connection change in New York, he was interrogated and deported to Jordan on the condition that he be sent to Syria, where he was subsequently kept in prison and tortured for over a year. The decision to deport him, when he was merely connecting through the U.S. and was not even visiting the U.S., was based both on faulty information provided by the Canadian police and by a lack of accountability in U.S. decision-making processes and opaque watchlist procedures.5 In an ironic turn of events, the Syrian justice system decided he was not guilty and sent him home to Canada.

The U.S. Government is now investing 15 billion dollars to create dossiers on all visitors to the U.S. (even though DHS had originally budgeted 7.2 billion 6). Now the system is likely to include other biometrics in the future; according to the contract winner, Accenture: "Part of our approach is to continually assess technology innovations. For a 10-year contract that's a generation or two of technology, and biometrics is a very hot area."7


  • 1. U.S. Department of Homeland Security. 2003. US-VISIT Program, Increment 1 Privacy Impact Assessment Executive Summary, December 18.
  • 2. Federal Register. 2003. DEPARTMENT OF HOMELAND SECURITY [DHS/ICE–CBP–CIS–001] Privacy Act of 1974; System of Records, Federal Register, Volume 68 Number 239. December 12.
  • 3. CDT. 2004. Comments Of The Center For Democracy And Technology on US-VISIT Program, Increment 1, Privacy Impact Assessment, Center for Democracy and Technology. February 4.
  • 4. American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, American Immigration Lawyers Association, Asian Pacific American Legal Center of Southern California, Association of Asian Pacific Community Health Organizations, Center for Democracy and Technology, Electronic Privacy Information Center, Empowering the Korean American Community New York, Friends Committee on National Legislation, Fairfax County Privacy Council, Human Rights First, Irish Immigration Center Boston, Korean American Coalition, Korean American Resource and Cultural Center Chicago, Korean Resource Center Los Angeles, National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium, National Black Police Association, National Council of La Raza, National Employment Law Project, National Federation of Filipino American Associations, National Immigration Law Center, National Korean American Service and Education Consortium, People For the American Way, Presbyterian Church (USA) Washington Office, Privacy Activism, Privacy International, Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, Privacy Journal, Sikh Mediawatch and Resource Task Force, The Multiracial Activist, and World Privacy Forum. 2004.
    10Letter to Nuala O'Connor Kelly, the Chief Privacy Officer of the Department of Homeland Security, Washington: April 22.
  • 5. Salot, Jeff. 2004. Mounties bungled Arar file. The Globe and Mail, September 25.
  • 6. GAO. 2004. Data Mining: Federal Efforts Cover a Wide Range of uses, GAO-04-548, May.
  • 7. Lichtblau, Eric, and John Markoff. 2004. Accenture Is Awarded U.S. Contract for Borders. The New York Times, June 2.