Privacy still a priority, officials say

From airports and border crossing stations to the doorways of government buildings and even to the computers inside, the Bush administration plans to use biometric identification technology to beef up homeland security.

Fingerprints, facial recognition, iris and retina scans, and other biometric technologies will be used more frequently to sort terrorists and criminals from the vast population of innocent people, said Steve Cooper, chief information officer at the Office of Homeland Security.

But high-tech identification systems won't be allowed to undercut civil liberties, Cooper promised in a talk to congressional staffers and technology industry representatives.

Privacy advocates find the plans unnerving. Clyde Wayne Crews Jr., director of technology policy for the Cato Institute, worries that facial-recognition cameras could evolve into general surveillance systems and that biometric driver's licenses will morph into national ID cards.

Even well-intentioned security steps by the Bush administration could lay the groundwork for automated authoritarianism in the future, Crews said.

In an address July 23, Cooper said that creating more reliable identification documents is a top priority in the president's homeland security strategy.

White House plans call for using biometric technology such as fingerprint databases and facial-recognition systems to create "smart borders." Trusted travelers would be issued biometric ID cards to speed through airport checkpoints, and government workers might be issued smart cards with biometric identifiers that grant them entry to government buildings and access to government computer systems, Cooper said.

Perhaps the most far-reaching initiative is the administration's proposal to help states develop uniform standards for driver's licenses.

The American Civil Liberties Union pounced on the proposal, saying that "this plan proposes a national ID — an internal passport — pure and simple."

Cooper insisted that the administration is "not in favor of and currently will not support a national ID card."

But Crews called the idea "worrisome. It's a step toward a national ID card." Although "voluntary" to the extent that no one is required to carry a driver's license, Crews said he fears licenses bearing biometric identification features would quickly become mandatory in the wake of another terrorist attack.

Cooper sought to put the administration's plans in perspective. "We are at war, and the war on terrorism requires a balance" between civil liberties and homeland security. It's "tough" to balance the two, but the administration will not sacrifice civil liberties for homeland security, Cooper vowed. "We will get it right."

Fingerprint and facial-recognition technology are the favored technologies at present, Cooper said, but retina and iris scans are improving and gaining wider acceptance as useful biometrics. And other technologies are likely to be invented, he said. The administration's policy is not to favor any particular biometric technology but to develop identification systems that can accommodate multiple technologies.

To be acceptable to the federal government, smart cards, for example, would have to be able to accommodate more than one biometric identifier, because different agencies have already adopted favorite technologies, Cooper said.

The State Department has invested heavily in facial recognition as its primary identification system, but the FBI is wedded to fingerprints. And neither is likely to give up its favorite, Cooper said.

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Biometric solutions

Some of the biometric initiatives the Bush administration is pursuing:

Travel documents — Visas, passports and similar documents would include biometric identifiers.

Trusted traveler cards — Airline passengers could volunteer to undergo background checks and receive biometric identification cards that would let them pass quickly through airport security.

Facial recognition — The Transportation Security Administration is experimenting with facial-recognition cameras in airports.

Fingerprints and photos — The Immigration and Naturalization Service plans to begin fingerprinting and photographing some foreign visitors as they arrive in the United States. Fingerprints would be checked against the fingerprints of criminals and terrorists in databases.

Driver's licenses — Tougher standards for driver's licenses are expected to include fingerprints or other biometric identifiers to make it harder to get more than one license or to counterfeit licenses.

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