Lawmakers debate merits of fingerprints

Experts disagree on use of biometric identifiers on e-passports

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2 digits or 10?

Lawmakers seeking information on the relative merits of fingerprints and facial images as biometric identifiers concluded a hearing last week by recommending to officials at the State and Homeland Security departments that fingerprints be used as the primary identifier in e-passports.

State Department officials are releasing the first completely redesigned passport in more than a decade. The e-passports include a digital photograph of the holder on the first inside page and a biometric chip containing the holder's biographical data and digital photo. The passports contain no fingerprints.

A digital photo that has been tampered with is fairly easy to detect, said Frank Moss, deputy assistant secretary for consular affairs at State. He testified before the House Homeland Security Committee's Economic Security, Infrastructure Protection and Cybersecurity Subcommittee.

But some lawmakers said digital photos still need to be inspected by a person. Customs and Border Protection officers must manually inspect digital photos because they cannot be verified electronically against terrorist databases, said Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Calif.), chairman of the committee. Using anything other than fingerprints as a biometric safeguard is useless because the only existing terrorist-detection databases use fingerprints, he said.

Others noted that fingerprint databases are the cornerstone of border screening. Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.), the subcommittee's chairman, said relying on individuals' eyesight to verify identity is likely to result in errors.

"If you've got fingerprints, you've got them dead to rights," he said. "Fingerprints are the way to go."

Elaine Dezenski, acting assistant secretary of DHS' Border and Transportation Security Directorate, noted that international travelers get their fingerprints taken as part of the visa-application process. Travelers must also give two fingerprints when they undergo screening through the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology program.

Information security experts at the National Institute of Standards and Technology say fingerprint systems are more accurate than facial-recognition ones. Martin Herman, chief of the Information Access Division in NIST's Information Technology Laboratory, said NIST officials reached that conclusion based on tests conducted in 2002 with the most recent data available, he said.

For cultural and political reasons, however, fingerprints have a disadvantage compared with facial images. Getting fingerprinted is seen as being booked for a crime, Dezenski said, which is why the International Civil Aviation Organization adopted facial-recognition technology in May 2003 as the primary biometric identifier in travel documents.

One expert testified that the United States should move all of its fingerprint-identification programs to 10-print identification. C. Stewart Verdery Jr., an adjunct fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a nonpartisan think tank, endorsed 10-print identification.

Verdery also recommended that the United States match the European Union in requiring fingerprints on passports.

More information, more trouble?

About 15 minutes after a departing flight from overseas is airborne, the Homeland Security Department receives biographical information from air carriers about the passengers on flights bound for the United States.

In April, DHS officials began requesting additional information about passengers, including their destination addresses — a decision that could ignite more controversy about DHS' data-collection policies.

Now, DHS officials are preparing another rule that would enable the department to get such passenger information in less than 15 minutes, said Elaine Dezenski, acting assistant secretary for DHS' Border and Transportation Security Directorate. She testified last week before a House Homeland Security Committee subcommittee.

Subcommittee member Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) asked Dezenski whether requesting additional information would put an extra burden on air carriers and whether DHS could prove, for instance, that a destination address was valid.

Dezenski responded that an address' accuracy could not be guaranteed, but the additional information would help DHS make better security decisions.

Thompson didn't buy it. "I don't see the rationale for information that can't be verified," he said.

— Michael Arnone

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