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DHS wants airlines to collect foreign passengers' photos, fingerprints

The Homeland Security Department Tuesday proposed a rule that would require airlines to collect biometric information from foreign passengers to help track when they depart the United States. The airlines sharply criticized the move.

Comment on this article in The Forum.The proposed rule would require commercial air carriers and cruise line operators to collect and transmit international visitors' biometric information such as fingerprints and digital photos to DHS within 24 hours of the visitor leaving the United States. The requirement is meant to complete the US VISIT system, which collects information from foreign visitors when they enter the country to verify their identities. US VISIT, which Congress created after the Sept. 11 attacks, also was supposed to record data about foreign visitors when they left the country, but DHS has not developed the exit portion of the system because of logistical, technological and cost issues.

While foreign visitors provide biometric information to a customs or immigration official during a face-to-face interview when they enter the country, the proposed rule does not specify exactly where or when the airlines would collect such information. The rule indicates that airline staff would be responsible for collecting the information and transmitting it to DHS. The cost of doing so has been estimated to be more than $2 billion over 10 years.

Airline officials criticized the proposal. "Border protection and immigration are government responsibilities," said Giovanni Bisignani, chief executive officer of the International Air Transport Association, in a press release. "Airline counter staff are not a substitute for trained border patrol officers, and outsourcing exit formalities to airlines is not a responsible approach."

The US-VISIT program has recorded almost 100 million people entering the country since 2004, when the entry portion of the system went online. Frustrated with DHS' slow pace in developing the exit portion, Congress last year set a June 2009 deadline for collecting fingerprints from departing air passengers -- which was one of the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission.

"We're not opposed to collecting fingerprints or biometric data," said Steve Lott, a spokesman for IATA, which represents 240 airlines internationally including major U.S. carriers. "Those are used by US VISIT now. But the congressional mandate does not say that the airlines have to do it."

DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff has vowed to stand firm on the proposal. "If we don't have US VISIT air exit by this time next year, it will only be because the airline industry killed it," Chertoff recently told the The Washington Post. "We have to decide who is going to win this fight. Is it going to be the airline industry, or is it going to be the people who believe we should know who leaves the country by air?"

DHS said airline employees are capable of collecting the biometric data, and therefore the process is not inherently governmental. As justification for the department's stance, the spokesperson said airlines already collect passengers' biographic information.

DHS said it would leave it to the airlines as to where and when they collect the data, and they hope to collaborate with the industry on how best to manage the process.

DHS officials insist that pilot programs conducted in 2004 and 2005 to test various ways to collect departing visitors' biometric data clearly showed that gathering it when they checked in with airlines was more effective than using separate manned and unmanned kiosks. "Compliance was very low when it wasn't part of the existing [departure] process," said a DHS spokesperson.

In addition, the cost to deploy the infrastructure and pay federal employees to collect the data is prohibitive, the spokesperson said.

Airlines, too, are concerned about bearing such costs. "The airline industry is in a very fragile state at the moment," Lott said. "Airlines are battling record high fuel prices and costs associated with air traffic control delays. We're not in a position to absorb millions of dollars in costs for something the government should pay for."

Airlines also worry that requiring airlines to collect biometric data at check-in counters would remove the efficiency of allowing passengers to use kiosks to obtain e-tickets and boarding passes. "This is a step backwards, to force passengers back to the check-in counter to get their fingerprints taken," IATA's Lott said. He added that if the information was collected at the gate instead, it could add to what already can be a chaotic process and lead to further delays and confusion.

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