By Mark Trevelyan, Security Correspondent
BERLIN (Reuters) - By subjecting most visitors to scans of their faces and fingers, the United States will this week expand a mass surveillance system that threatens freedom and race relations, a privacy watchdog says.
From Thursday, most visitors entering the United States will have to put each index finger in turn on a glass plate that electronically scans it, and to have a digital photo taken.
The United States says its US-VISIT program -- already in place for travelers requiring visas and now being rolled out more widely -- will add an average of just 15 seconds to entry checks and will enhance security.
It says the biometric data will be stored in databases, along with personal information such as full name, date of birth, citizenship, sex and passport number, and can be accessed by border, consular, immigration and law enforcement officials.
London-based rights group Privacy International said in a report on Wednesday that the scheme relied on flawed technology and opaque, error-strewn watch lists on which innocent people could find themselves wrongly identified as security threats.
"There is no end to the uses to which this sensitive information will be put, nor any meaningful borders or boundaries limiting the flow of this data," it said.
It cited former pop star Cat Stevens, a Muslim convert now known as Yusuf Islam who was deported from the United States last week, as a prominent person who had fallen foul of security watch lists.
DEPORTED TO SYRIA
A dual Canadian-Syrian national, Maher Arar, was deported to Syria by U.S. agents in 2002 and says he was tortured there. He is suing U.S. officials, who he says were acting on information from Canada that marked him out as a suspected al Qaeda member; Canadian officials deny this.
"The watch lists are numerous, and plagued with errors," Privacy International said. Its director Simon Davies said blacks and Muslims would be disproportionately targeted.
"What you'll witness in the coming months and years is an exponential rise in the number of black and Muslim travelers who will be turned away, arrested, shackled, deported, as Cat Stevens discovered," he said in a telephone interview.
The United States says the US-VISIT scheme will protect both citizens and visitors, safeguard privacy and facilitate legitimate travel and trade.
Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said on a visit to Europe this month that tighter security would not hurt economic and cultural ties, telling journalists: "We want secure borders but we want our doors open."
The European Union is also keen to embrace biometric technology and is developing standards for passports containing face scans and fingerprints. But Privacy International said there were significant error rates with both.
It pointed to the case of Brandon Mayfield, a Muslim attorney from Oregon who was held for two weeks as a material witness in the March 11 Madrid train bombings after a false match with a fingerprint on a bag of detonators found in the Spanish capital. The FBI later apologized to him.
The report said the potential for mistakes and violations would rise as other countries were set to follow the U.S. lead in rolling out traveler surveillance and profiling systems.
"The U.S. is leading the charge in a renegotiation of the fundamental terms of what constitutes an open society," it said.