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LCQ8: Aviation security


Following is a question by the Hon Bernard Chan and a written reply by the Secretary for Constitutional Affairs, Mr Stephen Lam (in the absence of the Secretary for Security), in the Legislative Council today (February 18):


To enhance protection against terrorist attacks, the United States ("US") Government has, starting January 5 this year, implemented the new measures which require most of the visitors entering the US on visa to have fingerprints and digital photographs taken of them. Moreover, the US Government plans to require airlines to place armed plain clothed sky marshals on certain international flights flying to, from and over the US airspace. It also plans to require airlines and travel agencies to submit data on passengers who have reserved tickets of flights scheduled to take off from the US, so that background checks on the passengers may be conducted in advance and when they undergo boarding procedures, the authority concerned can, according to the potential risks they pose, adopt different levels of security checks or forbid them from boarding. In this connection, will the Government inform this Council whether it has assessed the impact of the above measures, upon their implementation, on Hong Kong people visiting the US, the adequacy of privacy protection for them, and the feasibility of placing armed sky marshals on aircrafts of Hong Kong-based airlines; if it has, of the outcome; if it has not, whether it will conduct such an assessment?


Madam President,

The question by the Hon Bernard Chan refers to three different measures taken or planned to be taken by the United States Government. The HKSAR Government's observations/position regarding these measures are as follows:

(1) Finger printing and photo-taking

The US Department of Homeland Security launched on January 5, 2004 new entry and exit procedures including scanning of fingerprints and taking of digital photographs at entry/exit points for visitors travelling to the US on non-immigrant visa. This is a general policy and is not specifically targeted at visitors from Hong Kong.

As these new procedures have only been introduced recently it is too early to assess their impact on Hong Kong residents' travel to the US. So far we have not received any complaint about the additional procedures.

(2) Passenger information

We understand that the US Department of Homeland Security is developing a new Computer-Assisted Passenger Pre-screening System ("CAPPS") to identify passengers requiring additional security attention. Under the pre-screening system, passengers will be required to provide to the airline their full name, home address, home phone number and date of birth when they reserve their air tickets. The pre-screening system is intended to apply first to passengers on flights originating in the US, and is ultimately expected to cover also passengers on flights to the US originating in other countries. It is understood that privacy protection concern is one of the key issues considered by the Department of Homeland Security in developing the passenger pre-screening system. In the future, if airlines were to collect passenger information under the CAPPS in Hong Kong, they need to observe the relevant provisions in the Personal Data (Privacy) Ordinance and its Data Protection Principles. The Ordinance binds all data users who control the collection, holding, processing or use of personal data. In brief, if the airlines, when collecting data from passengers travelling to the US, inform them that their data would be passed onto the US authorities for security checking purposes and subsequently transfer such data to the US for the same purpose, such a practice would not be in conflict with the said Ordinance.

(3) Air marshals

The US Department of Homeland Security issued Aviation Emergency Amendments to air carriers all over the world on December 28, 2003 that require them to place trained, armed Government law enforcement officers (so-called air marshals) on specific flights flying to, from, or overflying the US when directed to do so by the US Transportation Security Administration ("TSA") on the basis of intelligence indicating that the flight might be targeted by terrorists. Airlines may also submit proposals for alternative measures in lieu of deployment of armed air marshals for consideration by the TSA.

The HKSAR Government believes that the risk of Hong Kong being used as a base of terrorist activities is relatively low. However, we are always on the alert, and a high standard of aviation security is maintained at the Hong Kong International Airport, which is in full compliance with the International Civil Aviation Organisation ("ICAO")'s Standards and Recommended Practices for aviation security. If there is specific threat information against a flight departing from the Hong Kong International Airport, the Government and the airline would ensure that enhanced security measures are completed on the ground and the threat is resolved before the flight would be allowed to depart. With stringent security measures completed on the ground, we consider that the deployment of air marshals would not necessarily further improve the safety and security of a flight.

In spite of the above, the HKSAR Government and Cathay Pacific Airways are studying the feasibility of deploying armed law enforcement officers on specific flights as well as the feasibility of alternative security measures. We are also closely monitoring how other governments and airlines are responding to the US requirement.

Ends/Wednesday, February 18, 2004


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