The tens of thousands of New Zealanders who visit the United States each year will soon have their fingerprints recorded and stored on FBI databases as they arrive.
Under plans to combat terrorism, the US Government will demand that visitors have all 10 fingers scanned when they enter the country. The information will be shared with intelligence agencies, including the FBI, with no restrictions on their international use.
At present, US airport scanners take only two fingerprints from travellers. The move to 10 allows the information to be compatible with the FBI database.
The Department of Homeland Security is expected to roll out the measures from the middle of the year, with 10 airports - including New York, Washington, and Miami - leading the way.
Countries subject to the new scheme include New Zealand, Australia, Japan and European Union nations.
Travel statistics website Asmal shows that as many as 139,000 New Zealanders visited the US in the 12 months to September, 3 per cent more than the previous year.
The 10-print plan has infuriated civil liberties groups in New Zealand and overseas.
Auckland Council for Civil Liberties president Barry Wilson described the measures as "overkill" and "a basic invasion of privacy".
The measures marked a move towards a "surveillance society", and could also prove to be cumbersome to carry out and prone to mistakes, he said.
"There's real dangers when you start from the point that everybody is potentially under suspicion," Mr Wilson said.
Green Party leader Jeanette Fitzsimmons said she was concerned that information gleaned at US ports could find its way back to New Zealand agencies, and the Greens were "quite opposed" to such forms of "extreme surveillance".
She described the measures as "totally over the top", and reminiscent of "Cold War paranoia".
Duty Minister Ruth Dyson said the Government would be "taking advice" on the changes and their implications for New Zealanders travelling to the US.
But House of Travel retail manager Brent Thomas said yesterday that New Zealanders would probably take the increased security measures in their stride. "The reality is New Zealanders are great travellers. They want to see the world and, generally speaking, unless it was really stringent ... my guess is they will still travel to these destinations."
The number of travellers to North America - including Canada - was up about 17 per cent in the year to December, but numbers going to to Britain and Europe had flattened out, Mr Thomas said.
As long as travellers were kept informed of security measures at various destinations, they would continue to visit.
"They really just want to know what they are in for ... it doesn't deter them from going."
He did not believe the change would make it slower for travellers entering the country, as airports relied on moving people "fast and effectively" to make money, and would take steps to make sure they continued to do so.
"They don't make any more by having people standing there an extra 30 or 40 minutes."
- Additional reporting NZPA
Rights group not amused
The 10-fingerprint plan has astonished British civil rights group Liberty, whose director, Shami Chakrabarti, said: "This must be the Keystone Cops school of border control.
"Accumulating the fingerprints of millions of innocent passengers will not deter would-be suicide bombers."
Security experts said the scale of the scheme might jeopardise its success. "This maniacal proposal will turn thousands of law-abiding British travellers into terrorist suspects," said Simon Davies, director of Privacy International,which campaigns against intrusive surveillance.
"The technology at US airports will be far less reliable and that means anyone could be the victim of a false match. Be warned. A San Francisco Bay family holiday may easily become a nightmare."
Davies said airport queues would treble because "taking fingerprints is a delicate and complex undertaking that can't be rushed to keep queues short."