Biometric-based passport in the works

The State Department is developing a passport that contains biometric technology to authenticate the identities of U.S. citizens who travel abroad.

The new documents are designed to be more secure, but they will also be more expensive — a cost that will be passed on to passport holders.

State officials are seeking ideas from industry for creating a tamper-proof document with an embedded circuit in a paper-based passport. The circuit would include a photograph of the passport holder and certain biographic data.

A driving force behind the initiative is a new law that requires countries participating in the U.S. Visa Waiver Program to issue machine-readable passports and incorporate biometric identifiers that comply with international standards. The citizens of 27 countries, mostly in Europe, would not be required to obtain U.S. visas if they have a passport with a chip.

"The use of computer technology in the identification and tracking of people and things is the wave of the future," said Robert Bryden, vice president of corporate security for FedEx Corp.

State's request for information is due July 28. It seeks durable chips that can last for the passport's 10-year validity period and withstand the rigors of international travel, such as temperature changes.

The passports also must meet international standards because they will be inspected differently in different nations, including manually and by machine, according to State.

Although no country currently requires U.S. citizens to carry passports with biometric identifiers, "we can't ask the rest of the world to have those features and not expect that the European Union and other countries wouldn't expect the same," said Rick Webster, director of government affairs for the Travel Industry Association of America.

Asa Hutchinson, the Homeland Security Department's undersecretary for border and transportation security, said the new department is working with State to create tamper-proof passports with biometrics.

"We want our international partners to move with us," Hutchinson said. "Gradually, we will not accept any passports that don't have that biometric feature." Hutchinson spoke July 8 to industry representatives who sought information about the new U.S. entry/exit visa system, which also would use biometric identifiers for foreign visitors.

The new law requires foreign governments to issue machine-readable passports by Oct. 1. It also sets an Oct. 26, 2004, deadline for foreign passports to include biometrics on a chip embedded in the passport that will let machines at borders read them.

"The use of machine-readable passports is critical to efficient border management and to the capture of accurate biographical and passport data relating to foreign travels," said Michael Cronin, DHS' associate commissioner for immigration policy and programs.

Tamper-proof passports containing a chip "greatly [reduce] the possibility of human error or misfeasance in capturing and communicating data," Cronin told the House Government Reform Committee July 10.

Nonetheless, the high-tech passport probably will cost more than the current 10-year version, priced at $85. State will likely increase the cost by up to $35 to pay for the security measures, according to Mohamed Lazzouni, vice president of engineering for Viisage Technology Inc., which provides secure digital identification systems.

The public likely will pay the increased cost because it "cuts down the processing time and will not be done at the expense of their security," he said.

Officials from high-tech companies said the technology already exists and has been tested to meet State's needs.

Many countries have experimented with biometric identifiers. One of the first was Malaysia, which built a smart card into passports, but the technology was not sophisticated enough to handle authentication, according to Joseph Attick, chief executive officer and president of Identix Inc., which provides facial and fingerprint identification systems.

"It is not a new concept," Attick said. "It is not based on technology that has not been proven. It will be in the back part of the [passport] jacket. It won't even add to the thickness of the document. There will be a slight bump in the back."

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No visa required

Citizens from the following countries are not required to have visas when entering the United States but are required to have biometric passports: Andorra, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brunei, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Monaco, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, San Marino, Singapore, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.

The U.S. government plans to implement its own biometric passports by October 2004.

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