US wants airlines to collect tourists’ biometrics

The United States government said this week it wants airlines and cruise liners to take biometric data from foreigners leaving the country under new plans aimed at fighting terrorism and illegal immigration.

Since January 2004, immigration services have taken a photo and fingerprints from each foreigner entering the US to identify those using a false name and to stop terrorists, drug traffickers or illegal immigrants.

More than 90-million prints have already been collected, but under a proposed law announced by the Department of Homeland Security on Tuesday, the system would be expanded to every foreigner leaving the country by sea or air.

The US-Visit programme, which is open to consultation for the next two months, would enable authorities to establish who has overstayed their visa, although there are no plans yet to extend it to people leaving the country overland.

Planned for introduction in January 2009, the proposal anticipates that airlines and maritime companies collect the biometric prints themselves and transmit them to the department within 24 hours of their passengers’ departure.

The government says the move, which was recommended by the commission into the September 11 2001 attacks, is a congressional requirement if the US visa waiver programme is to be expanded to new countries as planned from June 2009.

“We’ve built an effective entry system, and combined with the proposed exit system, we’ll have made a quantum leap in America’s border security,” said Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff in a statement.

But airlines are not showing the same enthusiasm for the initiative that, according to the Washington Post, which cited a departmental official, could cost them between $2,3-billion and $3,5-billion over 10 years.

“It makes no sense to have the government outsource this type of law-enforcement and customs function to the private sector,” said Steve Lott, a spokesperson for the International Air Transport Association (Iata).

Aside from the cost, he said collecting such data could be a major disruption for airlines and “add even more confusion to the process for foreign travellers” who are already facing extra security measures at US airports.

If the prints needed to be collected at check-in, then passengers would no longer be able to check in online. If they were taken at the boarding gates, Iata estimates it could take between 45 and 60 seconds per passenger, potentially causing delays.

But the CEO of the Travel Industry Association, Roger Dow, called for a “fair and rational dialogue” between the government and airlines, saying a stalemate on the issue is “not acceptable”.

“We just live in a kind of world where that has to be done,” he said, adding that expanding the visa waiver program — which will increase the countries whose residents can visit the US without a visa — is expected to bring an extra two million travellers to the country. — AFP

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