Online extra: State OKs biometrics passports

The State Department plans by December to choose a vendor to provide millions of passport covers bearing biometric chips with digital images of the holder.

Vendor proposals are due next month for the facial-recognition technology. State officials say the Government Printing Office will continue to produce the pages that go inside the passports, which the agency will upgrade with improved security features.

Frank E. Moss, deputy assistant secretary of State for consular affairs, said the technology used in passports differs from that used in the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology system because it aims to make a one-to-one match between a person and a document.

In contrast, U.S. Visit matches a traveler against database records of millions of lawful travelers and thousands of suspects.

Moss discounted concerns that facial-recognition biometrics has a higher error rate than fingerprint records.

'There are privacy issues with fingerprints,' he said. 'Once you write a fingerprint to a biometric passport, it becomes available to other governments. Also, some governments view fingerprints as unacceptable means of identification.'

He conceded that facial-recognition technology available commercially now has an error rate of almost 10 percent. But Moss said forthcoming improvements likely will reduce it to less than 4 percent.

Even though facial recognition isn't perfect, he said, it will help Homeland Security Department border personnel match citizens and their documents.

Moss cited studies showing that workers doing repetitive tasks, such as comparing people to their passport photos, grow increasingly inefficient after an hour or two. Machines don't tire.

Citizens of countries such as France, Germany, Japan and others whose citizens can visit the United States without visas under the Visa Waiver Program also will receive biometric passports, and their governments soon will adopt passport reader technology at their borders.

State plans to use computer chips with 64K of RAM to store data. The digital image technology will take up about 15K to 20K on each chip. The extra memory could later store more biometric data, such as multiple images or iris scans, Moss said.

State will buy the 64K chips and antennas for about $10 per passport. To pay for the upgrade, the department plans to ask Congress for permission to levy a $10 surcharge on each booklet. Passport renewal now costs $55.

'We expect to begin producing these passports for tourists in February 2005,' Moss said.

Following a passport interoperability test covering several countries next year, State plans to begin deploying equipment for the new process in its 16 passport agencies next May and complete the rollout by the end of 2005.

Congress mandated the biometric passports in the 2002 Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act, which requires countries in the U.S. visa waiver program to adopt travel documents that conform to standards of the International Civil Aviation Organization [GCN, Aug. 25, 2003, Page 33].

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