State Dept. OKs biometric passports

By December, the State Department plans to choose a vendor for millions of passport covers with biometric chips storing digital images of the holder's face.

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 passport technology differs from that of the Homeland Security Department's U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology program 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,' Moss said. 'Once you write a fingerprint to a biometric passport, it becomes available to other governments. Also, some governments view fingerprints as unacceptable identification.'

He acknowledged that commercial facial-recognition technology now available has an error rate of about 10 percent. But Moss said he believes forthcoming improvements likely will reduce it to less than 4 percent.

Even though facial recognition isn't perfect, he said, the technology will help border personnel match citizens and their documents.

He 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 France, Germany, Japan and others countries whose citizens can visit the United States without visas under the Visa Waiver Program also will begin to receive biometric passports, and their governments soon will adopt passport reader technology at borders, he said.

Extra memory

State plans to use passport chips with 64K of RAM. A digital image will take up about 15K to 20K, and the extra memory could later store more biometric data, such as multiple images or iris scans, Moss said.

The 64K chip and antenna will cost about $10 per passport. State 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,' Moss said.

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

Congress mandated biometric passports in the 2002 Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act, which requires countries such as Japan in the U.S. visa waiver program to adopt travel documents that must conform to international standards of the International Civil Aviation Organization.

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