Smart passports will soon face up to tough scrutiny

A year from this fall, Americans will begin to travel with the State Department's new intelligent passports.

A chip embedded in the back cover will store facial biometric images that follow an international aviation security group's recommended standard for machine-readable travel documents. The chip will also be contactless, meaning it will wirelessly link to a reader.

The International Civil Aviation Organization in May selected high-capacity, contactless integrated-circuit chips and facial biometrics for universal identification.

'We want a globally interoperable system,' said Frank Moss, deputy assistant secretary of State for passport services.

But the State Department also is taking its cue from legislation. The Enhanced Border Security Act and Visa Entry Reform Act of 2002 requires countries in the U.S. Visa Waiver Program to adopt biometric passports that comply with ICAO's standard.

State expects to process 7.1 million passport applications this year and 7.6 million next year. By 2008, that could jump to more than 9 million, severely stretching today's passport infrastructure, State officials said.

The department's fiscal 2004 performance plan calls for overhauling the systems at passport offices nationwide to handle the new smart-card passports.

Expensive geniuses

An intelligent passport could gain even more smarts down the road. Next-generation passports might rely only on a biometric exchange, said Kevin Hurst, a policy analyst for the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy, speaking at a recent smart-card project managers' meeting.

'Heightened border security has led to necessary, but expensive, changes such as the expanded use of biometrics in visas, technologically enhanced lookout systems, and machine-readable visas and passports,' said Grant Green, undersecretary of State for management, in a recent statement.

For such passports to work globally, however, the United States must make biometric data-sharing arrangements with other countries, said Nancy Kingsbury, managing director for applied research and methods at the General Accounting Office, in testimony before two Senate subcommittees in March.

Although Kingsbury called facial recognition one of the four biometric technologies appropriate for border security, she said inserting biometrics into passports might lead to less privacy, more database confusion and longer lines at points of entry. Those consequences would hike the program's costs and risks, she testified.

'Questions remain regarding the technical and operational effectiveness of biometric technologies in applications as large as border control,' she told the Senate Judiciary subcommittees on Terrorism, Technology and Homeland Security, and on Immigration, Border Security and Citizenship.

For now, State is working on joint memoranda with the Bureau of Engraving and Printing and the Government Printing Office to sketch out passport redesign.

Last month, State issued a request for information from vendors about integrating chips into the passport booklets. The RFI asked about chip availability, technical performance, security, durability and delivery.

State's specified memory capacity of 64K is double ICAO's 32K minimum. A single facial biometric image, not including biodata and other information, would take up 12K, secured by public-key infrastructure and digital signature technology.

Moss said the chip most likely would be within the back cover for protection against heavy stamping.

The department plans to release a request for proposals this fall, Moss said. The intelligent passports will begin a pilot at a domestic passport facility beginning Oct. 26, 2004, the deadline Congress delayed by a year in its Border Security Act. Full implementation is slated to follow by the start of 2006 at an estimated annual cost of $100 million.

'I know this is aggressive,' Moss said last month at the Smart Cards in Government conference in Arlington, Va. 'We're busy.'

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