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10 August 2004

U.S. Delays Biometric Passport Deadline until 2005

Bush signs law to delay 2004 implementation

By Charlene Porter
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington -- President Bush signed a bill August 9 delaying the deadline for implementation of new high-technology passports for 27 countries.

The new law calls for adoption of biometric passport identification standards by October 26, 2005 rather than by October 26, 2004, which was the deadline originally adopted when the U.S. Congress ordered more secure passport standards as part of the Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act of 2002.

The delay would allow immigration officials in affected nations -- those that participate in the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) -- one more year to properly develop, test and incorporate what are called biometric standards in travel documents.

"This extension was necessary to avoid potential disruption of international travel and provide the international community adequate time to develop viable programs for producing a more secure, biometrically enabled passport," said State Department Deputy Spokesman Adam Ereli.

Biometrics indicators are features that can be definitively linked to a given individual, such as fingerprints. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) has recommended that facial recognition technology become the preferred technology for passports.
Facial recognition technology takes use of the standard photo identification card to a new level of sophistication. In current practice, a border official compares the face of a traveler before him with a photo in the passport. With the newly developing facial recognition technology, a camera at the port of entry will capture the traveler's image, then a computer will compare and validate the facial characteristics of the individual presenting the passport and the passport itself.
The method is supposed to help better detect forged documents and improve security. The problem is that the method is still in the testing stages. Officials from the Departments of Homeland Security and State went to Congress and sought the delay because the United States and other nations are encountering serious challenges in designing and testing the new technology.

Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs Maura Harty outlined the problems at a congressional hearing June 15.

"We face complex technological and operational issues," said Harty, explaining the difficulties involved in ensuring the system's readability and security. "Working through these hard issues takes time."

The 2002 law called on the 27 nations participating in the Visa Waiver Program to adopt a more secure design, but international agreement on what standard to use came only in May 2003.

"Thus, VWP countries had 17 months from that decision date to bring a biometric passport from design to production-a process that normally takes years," Harty said. In her testimony, Harty said it appeared that "few, if any" of the affected nations would be ready with a new passport design by October 2004.

Facial recognition passport technology works using a computer chip. So not only are nations producing new passports, they are also designing, developing and producing reading machines that will scan the passports at every port of entry. Nations are also working to ensure that their passports and reading machines are compatible with those produced by all other nations involved in the VWP so travelers can move smoothly across international borders.

Requirements that all nations issue machine-readable passports to travelers will take effect in the next few months and are not subject to the deadline extension signed by President Bush. Nations sharing travel reciprocity under the VWP are required to issue machine-readable passports to their travelers by October 26. That deadline was supposed to have taken effect last year but was extended by the secretary of state when nations appealed for a postponement.

Because of security concerns surrounding these transitions in passport systems and border controls, the Department of Homeland Security will also begin asking VWP travelers for digital fingerprints and photographs as they enter the United States. The agency calls it a fast and easy process that enhances border security and facilitates the movement and safety of legitimate travelers. The new requirement will begin September 30.

The United States began a concerted effort to review and revise its entry policies for international visitors when investigations revealed that some September 11 hijackers had exploited lapses in the system to gain entry to the country and make their attacks.