The US government is building a massive database designed to identify individual terror suspects from fingerprints on objects such as a tea glass in an Iraqi apartment or a shell casing in an abandoned Al Qaeda training camp.
The database is being created in part by forensic specialists searching for and preserving evidence overseas. They are collecting unidentified latent fingerprints in places once occupied by Al Qaeda and other suspected terrorists.
The information is feeding into a computerized system designed to match a name with an unidentified fingerprint.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff calls the program "a quantum step forward in security."
"(It) gives us the ability to identify the unknown, unidentified terrorist," he said in a recent speech. "It also creates a powerful deterrent for anybody who has ever spent time sitting in a training camp, or building a bomb in a safe house, or carrying out a terrorist mission on a battlefield."
Not everyone sees the creation of such a database as progress. Privacy advocates and civil libertarians say it could lead to a dangerous erosion of American rights.
"Our assessment of these systems is that many that are undertaken with a goal of identifying terrorists eventually become systems of mass surveillance directed toward the American public," says Marc Rotenberg, president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington.
"When Secretary Chertoff says we are trying to identify people who were in safe houses in Iraq with terrorists, that is a very small part of the story," Mr. Rotenberg says. "The technology used to identify a terrorist in a safe house in Iraq is the exact same technology that can be used to identify a war protester in a Quaker meeting house in southern Florida."
Last year, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced the completion of a database system that collects electronic fingerprints of both the index and middle fingers of every noncitizen entering the US. The system now documents 64 million travelers. The Homeland Security database is being linked with the FBI's database of more than 40 million subjects.
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