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Visitors to the US from many countries may be fingerprinted or photographed in a Federal anti-terrorism programme.

The scheme cover travellers from countries who require a visa to visit the US - an estimated 24 million people a year - but not (as yet) visitors from visa-exempt countries. Exempt countries include Western European states, along with Japan, Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

The United States Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology (VISIT) program will provide an important tool against terrorism, says the US Department of Homeland Security, which is administering the scheme.

Fingerprints are taken using an inkless contact method at the port of arrival. The data is then checked against a database of criminals and suspected terrorists and cross matched against biometric data on a visa. The screening process is repeated when an individual leaves the US.

The programme goes live today at 115 airports and 14 US seaports. Land border processing will be introduced in phases during 2005 and 2006.

The US-VISIT program received $380 million last year and is expected to cost $330 million in 2004 0 too much, say critics, who argue the scheme will cause travel delays without providing any real security improvements.

Not so, says the Department of Homeland Security, which reckons the measures will add only seconds to the entry and exit process while enable the authorities to more effectively track visitors to the US.

Some countries have taken exception Brazil, for instance, has retaliated by introducing similar fingerprint entry procedures for US citizens. ®

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