We live in an age that requires us to rethink our attitudes toward fingerprints.
Most ordinary citizens rarely, if ever, get fingerprinted. Most of us associate the process with crime dramas. You've seen it a million times on TV: When the cops nab a perp, they book him and take his fingerprints. Most of the connotations about this process are negative, right down to the messy ink.
But this is the digital age and things are changing. Fingerprints aren't just about criminals anymore, and they don't require messy ink. Some laptop computers come with a fingerprint scanner that the owner can use as a biometric password. Similar keyless locks are available for your car.
And, as many visitors to the U.S. have discovered, fingerprint scans enable you to prove to Customs and Border Protection that you are who your passport and visa say you are.
When you think about it, verifying a visitor's identity by comparing fingerprint scans is essentially the same thing as doing so by comparing a face and a photograph, and it can be done by automated scanners.
Still, for many of us there is something vaguely unsettling about the idea of fingerprinting travelers. And we suspect we are not alone in experiencing a tinge of regret that the European Union is proposing to incorporate fingerprint scanning into its immigration and border control systems.
Many details remain to be worked out, but the broad outlines of the EU proposal resemble the system adopted by the U.S. after 9/11. Visas would not be required for short-stay visitors from countries in a reciprocal visa waiver program, such as the U.S. Visitors requiring a visa would have to provide biometric data when they apply. This data would be scanned on arrival to verify the identity of the visa holder.
Eventually, the EU envisions a system that would permit automated scanning at entry points, "without the intervention of border guards."
The U.S. system has been criticized because some prospective travelers in foreign countries find it burdensome to schedule a visit to a U.S. Consulate, present themselves for an in-person interview, provide the biometric data, and wait long periods for the result.
Some foreign travelers have complained that the process is frustrating, intimidating and demeaning. In fact, the U.S. entry procedures have been cited as a deterrent to discretionary travel, as prospective visitors simply decide to spend their leisure time in other destinations, such as Europe.
But there are reasons to believe that Europe will implement its regime without some of the sharp edges that seem to have damaged the image of the U.S. Our border-control policies have been driven largely by the war on terror, a motivation that, in the eyes of some critics, has led to some excesses.
The EU proposals, however, contain more references to combating illegal immigration and crime than to terrorism. Those are critical and emotionally charged issues, to be sure, but the EU does not seem to acting as if it is under siege.
A statement issued by the European Commission proclaims that "all of this increased security must not impact upon legitimate travellers entering and exiting the Union. The world's leading tourist destination must make use of new technology and an integrated approach to facilitate travel for all."
That's a noble sentiment, and we hope the EU can remain true to it.