RealTime IT News

E-Passport Progress Still Stymied?

WASHINGTON -- Lawmakers lashed out today at Bush administration officials for their latest delay in implementing biometric passports. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the State Department, in turn, counseled patience and pointed to progress already made.

House members on the Homeland Security Committee were unimpressed.

"The [DHS] appears to be keeping up its record of breaking deadlines it, Congress or the president has set," Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) said. "It is hard for Congress to map the department's progress when there is nothing to look forward to but another broken deadline."

Last week, the DHS pushed back by one year an Oct. 26, 2005, deadline for countries in the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) to issue e-passports capable of storing the biographic information from the passport data page, a digitized photograph and other biometric information in travel documents.

Instead, the mostly European nations of the VWP must present the United States with "an acceptable plan to begin issuing integrated circuit, or e-passports, within one year" of the Oct. 26, 2005, deadline set by Congress last year. The original deadline for e-passports was Oct. 26, 2004.

"When I start to think about all the deadlines the [DHS] has missed or moved, I feel like I'm waiting for the cable guy to install my cable between the hours of noon and five," Thompson said. "You don't know when he's coming, if he is coming or how many times you are going to have to call to get service."

Thompson added, "Our nation deserves better than that. The [DHS] can't keep telling America that it will get homeland security done next year."

Elaine Dezenski, acting assistant secretary for the DHS Border and Transportation Directorate, pointed to the DHS decision to force VWP countries to begin producing machine-readable passports with digital photographs by October.

"Digital photographs provide more security against counterfeiting than traditional photographs," Dezenski said. "Digital photos can be electronically stored and accessed, making it easier to verify whether the individual currently presenting the passport is the same person to whom the passport was issued."

That's not good enough, contended Homeland Security Committee Chairman Christopher Cox (R-Calif.).

"I'm struck with the misuse of the term 'biometric in regard to photographs," Cox said. "It's a picture, that's all there is to it. It's Matthew Brady technology from the Civil War."

Cox said calling a passport with a digital photograph biometric "masks the fact that there is no biometric identifier linked to a database. It's human being looking at a picture."

Frank Moss, deputy assistant secretary for consular affairs at the State Department told the panel the United States has adopted facial images as the first generation of biometric identifiers. U.S. passports issued after Oct. 26 of this year will include a contactless chip in the rear cover of the document that will contain the same information as the biographic data page of the passport.

The information on the chip will include a digital photograph in addition to the holder's name, date and place of birth, passport number and the issue and expiration date.

"Looking to the future, the [State Department] decided to require 64K of writeable memory on the contactless chip in the event that we subsequently decide to introduce additional biometrics," Moss said.

Moss told the lawmakers he was aware of concerns that the data on the e-passport chip may be susceptible to unauthorized reading.

"To help reduce this risk, anti-skimming materials that prevent the chip from being read when the passport book is closed or mostly closed will be placed in the passport," he said.

Moss added the State Department is also considering the adoption of basic access control (BAC) technology to beef up the security on passports. BAC technology prevents the chip from being read until the passport is opened and its machine-readable zone is read electronically.

"We are engaged with technical experts from the private sector and the National Institute of Standards and Technology to both assess the risk of unauthorized reading and to evaluate the efficacy of countermeasures," Moss said.