DHS mulls choice of passport technology, as lawmakers clash

Senior federal IT policy officials are facing a technology choice that also has set off fireworks in Congress: Should Uncle Sam accept digital photographs, as well as smart chips, as biometric identifiers in foreign passports?

The question is critical because it could govern whether Congress grants foreign countries a second extension of the requirement to certify that they have launched biometric passport programs.

If legislation, technology evaluation and diplomacy can’t solve the problem, the State Department and the foreign ministries of 27 Visa Waiver Program countries may be forced to process visa requests from tens of millions of travelers who formerly traveled without visas, thereby tangling tourism and trade.

Homeland Security Department spokeswoman Kim Weissman said that the question of whether DHS would accept digital photographs as biometric identifiers for citizens of visa waiver countries is “still under review.”

The Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act of 2002 mandated that Visa Waiver Program countries establish biometric passport programs by Oct. 26, 2004. Congress extended that deadline last year at the request of secretary of State Colin Powell, who testified that the countries couldn’t meet the original deadline.

Judiciary Committee chairman Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), author of the 2002 act, has said the law does not require a chip, but calls only for a biometric identifier—which could be a digital photograph.

The Bush administration is widely expected to ask Congress to extend the Oct. 26 deadline for an additional year because many countries still haven’t complied with the law.

Elaine Dezenski, the Homeland Security Department’s acting assistant secretary for policy and planning in the Border and Transportation Security Directorate, recently told law-makers that DHS secretary Michael Chertoff planned to meet with Sensenbrenner in the next few weeks to discuss passport policy.

Whatever route the foreign countries take to provide their citizens with biometric passports, DHS won’t be ready to check the biometric features of the documents at border crossings by October.

During a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee’s Immigration, Border Security and Claims subcommittee on April 21, Dezenski declined to give “a date certain” for the deployment of chip readers, but said, “We will not have all the readers deployed by Oct. 26, 2005.”

“One of the most challenging pieces is the reader technology,” she said. “Over the next three months we will be conducting robust [reader] testing,” she said, to establish the equipment’s suitability for use at high-traffic border crossings.

DHS also likely won’t be ready by October to scan digital photographs at border crossings. The department has not tested or purchased the optical character readers that would be necessary to check the photographs, according to a staff member for Sensenbrenner.

Deadline doubts

Despite DHS’ doubts about being prepared for the new passports, Congress might give it no choice.

Sensenbrenner recently cast doubt on the need for a deadline extension, contending during the hearing that digital photographs would meet the law’s requirements.

The act requires that the biometric passports comply with standards set by the International Civil Aviation Organization, Sensenbrenner noted. When the law was passed, ICAO was honing standards for digital photographs.

Since 2002, ICAO has been developing standards for contactless chips. ICAO recognizes digital photographs as a transitional technology to be used while countries roll out smart chips.

“Congress, in passing the act, anticipated that ICAO would establish reasonable, cost-effective standards which relied on existing technology,” Sensenbrenner wrote. “That the ICAO would become enmeshed in new and unproven technology, and that the [European Union] should choose an elaborate and expensive path to meet the requirement has led to consequences that are regrettable, but not insurmountable.”

Sensenbrenner said that 12 of the 27 Visa Waiver Program countries would have programs to comply with the law in place by October. The State Department has a list of 14 countries that it believes can comply, but it is a different list than Sensenbrenner’s.

One of those countries that likely will meet the October deadline is Ireland. A senior Irish diplomat in Washington said his government likely would self-certify compliance to DHS on the grounds of its tamper-resistant digital photograph program.

“What we would hope to be able to do is to indicate by the Oct. 26 deadline that we already have the digital photo that would address in most peoples’ view what Congress looked for [in the 2002 Act] and that we will be working to put a chip in the passports,” the diplomat said.

Chips ahoy

Ireland is a member of the European Union and as such plans to meet the trade bloc’s requirement for a smart chip that is set to kick in on Aug. 28, 2006.

Sensenbrenner’s view that digital photos would meet the mandate surprised some in industry. The Smart Card Alliance, a coalition of contactless chip companies, maintains that the ICAO standards mandate smart chips in passports.

“This is a new twist on what was clearly understood in the initial passage of the law,” said Randy Vanderhoof, the alliance’s executive director, on the prospect of the federal government approving digital photographs.

The issue also split the committee across party lines. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas, the committee’s ranking Democrat, emphasized the need for the deadline extension as a practical matter.

Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) also supported the extension, saying, “At some point we will have to come to grips with extending the deadline.”

And Republican Rep. Jeff Flake of Arizona lined up on the side of those who would extend the deadline, saying “My openness to pushing ahead with another extension is based on the fact that we cannot expect others to do what we are not prepared to do ourselves.”

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