U.S. moving with switch to `biometric' passports

Oct. target won't be met, but trial run set for fall

May 15, 2004|By Frank James | Frank James,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON - In the near future, Americans returning from abroad will have their faces scanned by cameras at ports of entry, then compared by computer to digitized photos encoded on high-tech chips in their passports for verification.

The goal is to prevent known terrorists from entering the country and to make the use of stolen passports virtually impossible.

Because such biometric identification incorporates a person's unique physical characteristics, including fingerprint swirls or iris patterns, it is considered the best method yet invented of authenticating someone's identity.

The State Department plans to start issuing the first biometric passports in a trial run in the fall and hopes to ramp up to full production next year. Those who have traditional passports would not replace them with the biometric ones until they expire.

"In the case of the passport, what we're trying to do, not just the U.S. but the international community, is to help ensure for the border inspector that the person carrying that passport is the person to whom that passport was initially issued by that government," said Frank Moss, the State Department's deputy assistant secretary for passport services.

"In the lexicon, it's called a one-to-one match."

Other countries also are moving to issue the enhanced passports, spurred by relatively new U.S. laws that would bar U.S. immigration and border officials from accepting traditional passports from certain nations.

While it's not happening as fast as Congress wanted - lawmakers had given an October deadline to the industrialized nations of Europe and Asia whose citizens do not need visas to enter the United States - the shift to biometric passports appears firmly on course.

"There's no question of the will of those other countries and the U.S. to incorporate biometrics, but it has challenging technical, scientific and operational issues, and it just takes time to resolve those problems," Moss said.

The global effort has been slowed by the need to determine such matters as whether the chips would last 10 years, the standard period for which U.S. passports are issued.

Questions of privacy also had to be addressed because the chips will use radio frequency identification technology to transmit data. Without protection, the technology theoretically might allow people - identity thieves, for example, or intelligence agents other than immigration officials - to electronically, and surreptitiously, determine the identity of a passport holder.

It has also taken time for the 27 participating nations, including Japan, Australia and many European countries, to agree on standards that allow their biometric passports to be read in other countries.

"The challenge of interoperability and ensuring that the data that's written to the chips is secure ... are issues that are just taking longer to resolve than anybody expected," Moss said.

Those delays caused Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge to ask Congress last month for a two-year extension on the deadline for other nations to add biometric information to their passports.

Though the initial deadline will not be met, it was prudent to press the issue, some say.

"It's always good to create a deadline and have the industry and government agencies do their level best to reach it," said Joseph Atick, head of Identix, a biometrics technology company. "I think the deadline was a great motivator to make governments, especially abroad, realize that we were serious."

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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