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RealTime IT News

Biometric Passports Face Second Test

The second round of testing e-passports that contain contactless chips with biometric data begins Sunday at San Francisco International Airport (SF0).

A joint effort between the United States, Australia, New Zealand and Singapore, the testing will assess the operational impact of using new software and hardware to verify the information embedded in e-passports.

"This test provides an important opportunity to work with our international partners to further the . . . efforts to put in place an e-passport reader solution by the fall of this year," Jim Williams, director of the US VISIT program at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), said in a statement.

An e-passport contains biographic information and a biometric identifier, currently a digital photograph, embedded in a chip. A separate piece of hardware at the airport will "read" the information on the chip.

The e-passports being tested at SFO contain a security feature known as Basis Access Control (BAC), which is intended to prevent the unauthorized reading or "skimming" of information on the passports by devices other than the airport's reader.

The SFO test is the second live tryout of the e-passport between the U.S., Australia and New Zealand. According to the DHS, the goal is to gather information to help other countries to develop and implement e-passport systems that comply with International Civil Aviation Organization standards.

In addition, the testing will provide more information on the airport reader hardware. Privacy and security advocates have continually voiced their concerns about the ability of others to use scanners and other devices to steal the information on the e-passports.

"The results of the previous test, held at the Los Angeles International Airport and Sydney Airport, indicated that further testing would be beneficial to our development of a fully operational system," Williams said.

Last June, 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" by the Oct. 26, 2005, deadline set by Congress last year.

The original deadline for e-passports was Oct. 26, 2004.