US wants airlines to collect biometrics as tourists leave
Biometric data to be collected from foreigners leaving the country under new plans aimed at fighting terrorism and illegal immigration. -AFP
WASHINGTON, US - THE US government said on Tuesday it wants airlines and cruiseliners 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 United States 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 minister of homeland security 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 as 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 ministry within 24 hours of their passengers' departure.
The government says the move, which was recommended by the commission into the Sept 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 ministry official, could cost them between US$2.3 billion (S$3.1 billion) and US$3.5 billion over ten years.
'It makes no sense to have the government outsource this type of law enforcement and customs function to the private sector,' Steve Lott, a spokesman for the International Air Transport Association (Iata), said.
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, the Iata estimates it could take between 45 and 60 seconds per passenger, potentially causing delays.
But the CEO of the Travel Industry Association (TIA), Roger Dow, called for a 'fair and rational dialogue' between the government and airlines, saying a stalemate on the issue was '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 United States without a visa - was expected to bring an extra two million travellers to the country. -- AFP
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