Committee: Fingerprint beats face

The Homeland Security Department should use fingerprints, not facial recognition, as its primary biometric security measure in passports, House members told DHS and State Department officials today.

The State Department is rolling out its first completely redesigned passport in more than a decade. The passports include a digital photo of the holder and a biometric chip that contains the holder’s biographic data, including the photo. The digital photo makes it much easier to tell if a person has tampered with the photo, said Frank Moss, deputy assistant secretary for consular affairs at the State Department, as he testified before the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Economic Security, Infrastructure Protection and Cybersecurity.

But officers with U.S. Customs and Border Protection must still manually inspect the digital photo, which doesn't help identify the person holding the passport any better because the photos are not electronically verified against terrorist databases, said Rep. Chris Cox (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee.

"Biometrics must include some measurement," Cox said. "That's the point. There is no biometric identifier being used to connect a person to a document."

Using anything other than fingerprints as a biometric safeguard is "essentially useless" because the only existing terrorist-detection databases use fingerprints, Cox said.

Fingerprint databases are the cornerstone of border screening, said Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.), subcommittee chairman. Relying on individuals' own eyesight to verify identity is inaccurate, Lungren added. "If you've got fingerprints, you've got them dead to rights,” he said. “Fingerprints are the way to go.”

International travelers get their fingerprints taken as part of the visa-application process, said Elaine Dezenski, acting assistant secretary for DHS’ Border and Transportation Security Directorate. They also must give two fingerprints when using the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology (US-VISIT) program, which screens foreign nationals entering and exiting the country to weed out potential terrorists.

Fingerprint systems are more accurate than face recognition systems, said Martin Herman, chief of the information access division of the Information Technology Laboratory at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. These findings are based on tests in 2002, the most recent available, he said.

But the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) adopted facial recognition technology in May 2003 as the primary biometric identifier in travel documents for cultural and political reasons, Dezenski said. In some countries, getting fingerprinted is seen as being booked for a crime, she said.

Cox disputed the notion that fingerprints invade privacy and cited the example of the use of fingerprint scanners to access laptops.

The United States should move all of its fingerprint-identification programs to 10-print identification, said C. Stewart Verdery Jr., an adjunct fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a nonpartisan think tank. Verdery was Dezenski's predecessor as assistant secretary at the Border and Transportation Security Directorate.

The United States should also match the European Union in requiring fingerprints on passports and make ICAO define fingerprints as a mandatory biometric in passports, Verdery said.

Gregory Wilshusen, director of information security issues at the Government Accountability Office, issued a report today outlining the main privacy and security considerations in using radio-frequency identification technology.

Some security concerns include availability, confidentiality, protection and integrity of data on the tags and in commercial and government databases, the report states. Privacy concerns include informing people that the tags exist and are being used; tracking or profiling individuals; and using the information for other purposes, it states.

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