Travel abroad much? Get ready to leave your fingerprints all over the world:
The U.S. government today will order commercial airlines and cruise lines to prepare to collect digital fingerprints of all foreigners before they depart the country under a security initiative that the industry has condemned as costly and burdensome. [...]
"If we don't have US-VISIT air exit by this time next year, it will only be because the airline industry killed it," [Homeland Security Secretary Michael] Chertoff said recently. "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?"
The exit fingerprints come on top of the new 10-finger entry prints being rolled out this year, which is estimated to expand the 90-million strong foreigner-fingerprint database by more than 20 million a year (the DHS says it will keep the prints on file for 75 years).
But wait, we're just talking about foreigners, right? Fat chance:
Other countries are also joining the biometric bandwagon. Japan last year began collecting some fingerprints when foreign visitors enter the country and the European Union is considering it. These countries are also talking about sharing these databases.
Already, more than 160,000 U.S. citizens have applied for newly required ID cards, featuring Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) chips, to travel to Western Hemisphere destinations that previously accepted common driver's licences. Hundreds of thousands of Americans who never needed passports before now have them.
As in all things immigrational and consular, there is no such thing as unilateral armament, though the U.S. does get to play harder ball with smaller countries due to its size and power. In the words of French Interior Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie, "We are open to some demands, but we want reciprocity." And since the U.S. just signed deals with the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, Slovakia and Malta to get these formerly dodgy countries within shouting distance of the reciprocal "Visa Waiver" program in exchange for onerous security and privacy concessions that the existing Visa Waiver countries (like France) probably wouldn't accept, expect the EU to make more and more noise about how full biometric data collection for its Grand Canyon-visiting citizens amounts to the same as, well, a visa.
The upshot is that immigration restrictionists (particularly those motivated by security concerns) will continue getting what they want -- in this case, a trigger mechanism for hunting down furriners who overstay their visas, which is either the largest or second-largest category of illegal immigrants in the United States. The bad news is threefold: As Kerry Howley said yesterday, when restrictionists win, the economy loses. As James Bovard said in our February 2004 cover story, database management and point-of-entry security mandated by Washington can be an ugly thing.
And as I've been trying to say for years, whatever we impose on the world, the world will get around to imposing on us. It's getting increasingly hard to believe that there once was a time you could get a one-way stand-by plane ticket to Europe without ever attracting undue attention or entering a gargantuan database, and then slip entirely off the grid, ignoring whatever pointless and short-lasting visa (or spending) requirements they talked about in the Let's Go book. Are we much (or at all) safer after having traded that liberty in?