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
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