State Department awards $68 million contractfor passport printers

In an effort to cut down on the number of fraudulent U.S. passports, the State Department last week awarded a $63 million contract to Thermo Digital Technologies to provide high-tech printers to process passports.

In what is the first change to the U.S. passport since 1981, State's Bureau of Consular Affairs awarded the indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity contract to add security measures, such as digital images, to the 7 million annual passports the bureau plans to issue next year.

Thermo Digital will supply the bureau with up to 209 printers, manufactured by Toppan Printing Co. Ltd., to replace the decades-old Dynak printers the bureau has used to print such information as the recipient's name, date of birth and the city where the passport was issued. Passport photographs are then cut in a mechanical device before being glued by hand onto the passport and laminated.

The new printers have the ability to scan photographs and print the digital images onto the document while also printing biographical information in a one-step process.

"We had reached a choke point with the old printers because we were unable to either keep up with current levels of production or expand our volume of production," said Larry Emery, managing director of State's passport office.

Thermo Digital officials could not be reached for comment.

The printers will be tested at the bureau's New Hampshire office until September, when will be distributed to the bureau's 15 offices nationwide and eventually to overseas offices.

Emery said the new production process, especially the printing of digital images, will help the bureau fight passport fraud, although State officials could not estimate how many fraudulent passports may be in use.

"The new printers enable us to print the photo directly into the book, and that, essentially, makes it more difficult for criminals to substitute the photo," Emery said.

The contract represents the first major change to the U.S. passport since 1981, when the United States issued the world's first machine-readable passport.

Last year 6.3 million people received passports, and this year the department estimates it will process 6.7 million passports, with a 5 percent increase expected in 1999.

John Martin, director of special projects for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which is working to stop illegal immigration, said the advanced documents should help prevent illegal immigration.

"We certainly support state-of-the-art use of technology to prevent fraudulent use of U.S. identity documents to illegally enter the country," Martin said. "We hope that people who are traveling to countries where there has been a problem of passport theft will be encouraged to turn in their old passports for a new one."

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