Legislation that would extend by one year an October deadline requiring that 21 countries in the State Department's Visa Waiver program to begin issuing passports equipped with chips containing digital facial-recognition images or fingerprints awaits President Bush's signature after gaining unanimous approval from the Senate last week. The idea is that the biometric information stored in the chip could be compared against fingerprints or digital photos taken as foreigners enter the United States to verify that the holder of the passport is, in fact, the person to whom it was issued.
The Department of Homeland Security had asked for a two-year extension due to concerns that anything less wouldn't create a realistic chance of successfully meeting the deadline. "We truly believe we can have all the issues resolved in two years," says Homeland Security spokesman Bill Strassberger. "The chance of having them all resolved in one year is small."
The plan to begin requiring the biometric passports has run into inter-related technological and philosophical snags. On the technology front, while Strassberger says Homeland Security wants fingerprints to be required so it can run checks against law enforcement databases, the International Civil Aviation Organization, whose standards are driving the technology decisions for the project, has recommended focusing on facial recognition. A State Department spokeswoman says the department is going with the ICAO's recommendation. "There is no question, fingerprinting will not be involved," says spokesoman Kelly Shannon. Shannon says Visa Waiver nations will have the option of including other biometric information in passports if they desire, or they could also decide not to conform to the new passport guidlines and thus relinquish their Visa Waiver program status.
But Strassberger points to the fact that since Homeland Security's U.S. Visit program was introduced in January, a surprising number of people who have been deported multiple times have been caught trying to re-enter the country with new identities--only to be identified via fingerprints.
Meanwhile, European privacy groups are lobbying against the move toward biometric passports, citing privacy concerns over the United States holding excess personal information about their citizens. The divergent views on the project have created a waiting game--Homeland Security's Customs and Border Protection has held off on updating technology at ports of entry to make sure it doesn't waste money on unneeded capabilities.
One area in which all are in agreement: Whatever the final system ultimately looks like, it should be as complete as possible before moving forward. "We want to make sure that legitimate travelers can come into the country with as few problems as possible," says Moira Whelan, press secretary for the House Select Committee on Homeland Security. "But the overall theme is, we need to be able to identify people."