Biometric Passport Program Hits Snag

The U.S. Senate voted to delay
by one year the looming Oct. 26 deadline for Visa Waiver Program (VWP) countries to begin
issuing machine-readable passports. The House of Representatives has already approved a one-year extension.

The VWP allows visitors from Europe, Japan, Australia
and 22 other countries to visit the United States without having to obtain a
visa. In 2002, Congress approved the Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act, which required
those countries to issue tamper-resistant passports that incorporate
biometric identifiers.

According to the U.S. Department of State, neither the United States nor any of the
larger VWP countries, including England, France, Italy, Germany, Ireland,
Spain or Japan, are in a position to meet the Oct. 26 deadline.

The legislation now goes to the White House, and, although President Bush sought
a two-year delay, he is expected to sign the bill.

Maura Harty, assistant secretary of the Bureau of Consular Affairs, told the
Senate Judiciary Committee last month that a delay in the program implementation is necessary
because of technological challenges encountered by the United States and the visa
waiver countries. She cited issues, such as chip
availability, the security of the data on the embedded chips and the
international interoperability of readers.

Harty said the United States does not expect delivery of the 64 kilobyte
“contactless” chips needed for the passports until next year, and
the State Department does not anticipate completing the transition to biometric
passports until the end of 2005.

While it called for a biometric passport system, the 9/11 Commission
report, released last week, echoed the administration’s concerns about the biometric passport

“Completion of the entry-exit system is a major and expensive challenge,” the report states.
“Biometrics have been introduced into an antiquated computer environment.
Replacement of these systems and improved biometric systems will be
required. Nonetheless, funding and completing a
biometrics-based, entry-exit system is an essential investment in our
national security.”

The report further stressed that connecting biometric passports with
reliable databases will be key to real-time identification verification.

“Linking biometric passports to good data systems and decision making is a
fundamental goal. No one can hide his or her debt by acquiring a credit card
with a slightly different name,” the report says. “Yet today, a terrorist
can defeat the link to electronic records by tossing away an old passport
and slightly altering the name in the new one.”

The report adds, “Exchanging terrorist information with other countries,
consistent with privacy requirements, along with listings of lost and stolen
passports, will have immediate security benefits. The further away from our
borders that screening occurs, the more security benefits we gain.”

The standards for biometric passports were approved by the International
Civil Aviation Organization in May and include a full-face image on a
chip, as well as minimum chip storage capacity, security standards and
technical benchmarks.

In March, the United States, Australia and other countries will begin global
interoperability tests. Taking place in airports, the testing will
involve air crew and regular passengers presenting their biometric passports
at ports of entry where the passports will be read electronically.

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