DHS blinks on deadline for e-passports, allows digital photos

The Homeland Security Department will require that Visa Waiver Program countries produce passports with digital photographs by Oct. 26, but will allow another one-year extension for those countries to comply with issuing electronic passports. The Bush administration was widely expected to ask Congress to extend the deadline again.

In a move to tighten U.S. borders, any passport issued after Oct. 26 and used for travel from the 27 Visa Waiver Program countries, mostly in Europe, to the United States must include a biometric identifier based on applicable standards established by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). A digital photograph of the passport holder’s face must be printed on the data page of the passport.

“The electronic passport is the path to secure and streamlined travel among Visa Waiver Program countries,” said DHS secretary Michael Chertoff, adding that he was pleased with the progress of many Visa Waiver countries in complying with the requirements. By Oct. 26, 2006, those countries must produce e-passports with integrated chips capable of storing biographic information from the data page, a digital photo and other biometric information in travel documents.

The Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act of 2002 mandated that Visa Waiver Program countries establish biometric passport plans by 2004. Congress extended that deadline last year. This is the second extension.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), the law’s author, has said it does not require a chip but calls only for a biometric identifier, which could be a digital photograph. Biometric passports must comply with standards set by ICAO, which, when the law was passed, was honing standards for digital photographs. Since 2002, ICAO has been developing standards for contactless chips.

“Congress, in passing the act, anticipated that ICAO would establish reasonable, cost-effective standards which relied on existing technology,” Sensenbrenner wrote.

He praised the administration’s decision on the deadline extension for e-passports and acceptance of digital photos. “The administration should be commended for moving ahead to strengthen VWP program oversight, and for taking a deliberative approach to the deployment of the technology to read passports and confirm their validity. The approach taken by the administration embodies the intent of the statute.”

DHS and the State Department today began conducting a test with the governments of Australia and New Zealand at Los Angeles International Airport and at the Sydney Airport in Australia, and will continue throughout the summer. Airline crews and officials from United Airlines, Air New Zealand and Qantas Airlines are using the e-passport when arriving at either airport to enable DHS to test operations, equipment and software needed to read and verify the information contained in an e-passport.

DHS will create a validation process for VWP countries to test their e-passport prior to issuance. An upcoming technical conference with VWP countries and the U.S. government will clarify the details of this validation process, which will require that all e-passports be submitted by Sept. 1, 2006, in order to be validated by Oct. 26, 2006.

DHS is also requiring VWP countries to report all lost and stolen passports to Interpol and DHS, and increase information sharing between VWP countries and the U.S. government on trends and analysis of lost and stolen passports.

Valid passports issued before Oct. 26, 2005, will still be accepted for travel, provided that the passports are machine-readable.

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