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
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
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.