U.N. aviation group approves biometrics for the fast lane

An international aviation security body has developed draft standards for embedding biometrics into machine-readable travel documents such as passports, though details of the plan need to be resolved over the next several months.

The International Civil Aviation Organization, a specialized United Nations agency based in Montreal, last month approved its Technology Advisory Group's recommendation of facial recognition as the biometric technology of choice for travel documents. Member countries also can choose any other biometric system to accompany the facial images. The group also selected high-capacity, contactless integrated circuit chips to store the digital images on the documents.

The decision underscores the growing presence of biometric technology in federal systems designed to prevent terrorist attacks.

But much work still remains on the ICAO report, from finalizing specifications for the facial images and chip capacity to determining the funding and timetable for the documents' overhaul, said Richard P. McClevey, the State Department's director of information management.

And time is short. The Enhanced Border Security and Visa Reform Act mandates that countries in the Visa Waiver program begin complying with the ICAO biometrics requirements by October 2004. McClevey acknowledged that the deadline is tight but said it must be met.

Speedy decision

'If I had my personal preference, I would like to have more time to do this. We all would,' McClevey said at a recent biometrics conference in Washington. 'But the fact of the matter is, the law is what it is. ... We're not going to change that.'

Still others were impressed by how quickly ICAO reached its decision. 'We are delighted at the speed,' said W. Russell Neuman, a senior policy analyst in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. 'A process that would have taken nine months was just approved last week.'

The biometrics decision will be included in ICAO's Document 9303, which discusses standards for international machine-readable travel documents. The group, which counts 188 member nations, favored facial recognition as the least intrusive biometric test and integrated circuit chips as the best capacity storage medium, McClevey said.

The capacity of those chips, however, could still be open to debate. Neuman said the minimum requirement for those chips is 32K, which could prove insufficient for future storage needs of biometrics images. Instead, he said, his office is proposing that ICAO raise the minimum to 512K, a size that could easily handle facial images and up to 10 fingerprints.

PKI possibilities

To secure the biometrics piece on the travel documents, ICAO suggests using digital signatures with a public-key infrastructure, with each country's government serving as its central signing authority.

As the details of the recommended standards take their time to firm up, other federal biometrics programs push forward, unwilling to wait. Between November and February, the Homeland Security Department ran a pilot test that scanned 98,000 out of more than 6 million new Border Crossing Cards, issued since 1998 with two fingerprints and a digital photo apiece.

The images, embedded in an optical stripe, were run through 24 readers at six locations across the country, detecting 250 imposters, Asa Hutchinson, undersecretary of Homeland Security for border and transportation security, said in March before Senate subcommittees on homeland and border security.

The Transportation Security Administration will begin a nearly nine-month pilot this fall, awarding the systems integrator contract likely next month and testing facial, iris, hand, fingerprint and voice biometrics at employee entry points at 20 airports nationwide. Plus, DHS plans to release this fall a request for proposals for the U.S. Visitor and Immigration Status Indication Technology System, previously the Entry-Exit program, and award a contract as early as next May. Impatient to start, however, the department has set an ambitious goal to finish implementing biometric measures at the country's roughly 150 seaports and airports by the end of this year.

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