State begins shift to digital travel documents

The State Department has begun gathering digital fingerprints from overseas visa applicants, building on a six-year-old program it began for Mexican border-crossing documents.

The effort is part of a program to rapidly expand the use of biometric information on travel documents for foreign visitors to the United States and for U.S. citizens traveling abroad, said Joanne Arzt, senior biometrics adviser for State's Bureau of Consular Affairs.

The department in September began gathering digital scans of two fingerprints each from visa applicants at 80 consular posts. Fingerprint data now is gathered at about 90 posts, and since January the Homeland Security Department has been checking the prints against records of known and suspected terrorists as well as other criminals.

The State program started slowly at smaller posts, so that the department could work out technical problems, said Arzt, who spoke today at a government smart-card managers meeting in Arlington, Va.

State now gathers prints for about 23 percent of visa applicants. She said the department by October expects that all 214 consular posts that do visa interviews will be participating in the program.

October is the deadline under the Enhanced Boarder Security Act for countries not in the visa waiver program to begin issuing passports with digital biometric information for anyone who wants to travel to this country. The act does not require the technology on U.S. passports, but State has launched an aggressive plan to upgrade passports to include the data.

The new passports will contain 64K chips with antennas for contactless use. The chips will contain a machine-readable version of the data that is now included on paper passports.

The department issues about 7 million passports a year, each valid for 10 years for adults. The new passports will still have a 10-year life, although the department is conducting tests to see if the chips will last that long.

State is evaluating potential vendors for the program. Arzt said one vendor has protested the evaluation process, but a resolution is expected by month's end. If the General Accounting Office finds in the department's favor, State by October will begin issuing the first new passports to a handful of official travelers, probably State Department couriers, she said.

An adverse decision could delay the timetable. A pilot program for tourist passports is planned for late this year, with a full rollout slated to begin next year.

Some foreign governments have raised privacy concerns about the new biometric passport requirements, but "we are not convinced that this is a serious issue," Arzt said.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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