BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Commission unveiled on Wednesday a plan to fingerprint all foreigners visiting Europe's 24-nation border-free area, as part of a series of border-security proposals.
The electronic register, similar to a policy adopted by the United States after the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001, could go into effect by 2015 if governments and European lawmakers agree with the plan, the European Union executive said.
The European Commission says the scheme, part of a series of proposals to fight terrorism, organised crime and illegal migration, is needed to protect the bloc's borders now that travellers can cross national boundaries without checks between 24 member states in the enlarged border-free "Schengen" zone.
"This package puts forward new ideas on the table for the control of our borders ... using the most advanced technology to reach the highest level of security," EU Justice and Security Commissioner Franco Frattini said in a statement.
The entry/exit electronic register, which has sparked privacy concerns, could be complemented by a form air travellers would fill in on the Internet before flying to the bloc.
These extra security measures could be compensated by accelerated, automated check-in procedures for registered travellers considered safe enough by consular authorities.
All EU states except Britain, Ireland, Cyprus, Romania and Bulgaria are part of the borderless area, to which non-EU members Norway and Iceland also belong.
The new security plans have already sparked criticism that Europe is building up huge databases of personal information without a clear strategy or safeguards, and would be blindly following the United States.
"It's boys with toys. They want to have the toys the Americans have," said Gus Hosein of the Privacy International watchdog, saying that such a large electronic register data were bound to be lost or abused.
The entry/exit register would collect fingerprints and pictures of all foreigners entering the Schengen area for a stay of up to three months, the EU Commission said in its proposal.
The register would record the time and place of entry, the length of stay authorised, and would automatically alert authorities if a person stays longer than allowed.
The EU executive said it would come back in 2009 with a study into whether it should force all air travellers to fill in a form on the Internet before flying to the bloc.
It also suggested that frequent travellers could apply to be registered as safe travellers and be allowed to use accelerated, automatic check-in of their biometric data, where a machine would check the traveller, on a separate lane.
"Registered Traveller" status would be granted after checking if a person has sufficient resources, has a biometric passport, and never stayed longer than allowed in the EU.
The EU already stores asylum-seekers' fingerprints and plans the same for visa applicants.
EU citizens would not be fingerprinted in the new register, but nearly all of them already have to give fingerprints to be stored in an electronic chip on new passports. Automated gates could also be used for them too, the EU executive said.
In another U.S.-style security move, EU interior ministers have given preliminary backing to a plan to make airlines provide data on incoming passengers, including their credit card details and addresses. Such data would be kept for 13 years.
(Reporting by Ingrid Melander; Editing by David Brunnstrom)