State tells lawmakers biometrics will ensure identity

A digital photograph and contactless chip for electronic passport implementation would ensure the identity of the person carrying the document, a top State Department official said yesterday in testimony before Congress.

Facial imaging is the first generation of biometric identifiers, and is consistent with International Civil Aviation Organization standards, said Frank Moss, deputy assistant secretary of State for consular affairs. Moss made his statement during a hearing of the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Economic Security, Infrastructure Protection and Cybersecurity.

The Homeland Security Department will require that Visa Waiver Program countries produce passports with digital photographs by Oct. 26, but will allow another one-year extension for those countries to comply with issuing e-passports.

The chip in the e-passport's rear cover will contain the same data as that found on the biographic data page of the paper document, including the photograph, name, and date and place of birth in the first overhaul of passport design in more than a decade. The chip will also have 64 KB of writeable memory in case State introduces additional biometrics such as fingerprints and iris scans.

State is also considering adopting basic access control technology to prevent the chip from being read until the holder opens the passport and its machine-readable zone is read electronically. This would unlock the chip so the reader and chip can communicate in an encrypted session, according to Moss.

State has been assessing the risk of unauthorized reading of e-passports, as well as the effectiveness of countermeasures. 'The bottom line is that we will not issue biometric passports to the general public until we have successfully addressed these concerns,' Moss said.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology, however, has said fingerprints are a more reliable biometric method of identity verification.

'Fingerprints are more accurate than face recognition in operational environments,' said Martin Herman, chief of NIST's information access division. NIST, however, has not tested facial recognition reliability in three years, he said.

In 2002, NIST found that the two-fingerprint probability of matching was 99.6 percent; facial recognition was 90 percent. 'We believe there have been improvements in facial recognition since then,' he added.

The department began a test of the e-passport's performance by issuing 250 U.S. e-passports to United Airlines personnel who fly from Los Angeles International Airport to Australia and New Zealand. The Homeland Security Department has installed readers and separate lanes to test the e-passports' efficiency and effectiveness. National deployment of e-passports is scheduled for 2006.

About the Author

Mary Mosquera is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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