Passports and Visas with Embedded Biometrics and the October Deadline

By Powell, Colin | DISAM Journal, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

Passports and Visas with Embedded Biometrics and the October Deadline


Powell, Colin, DISAM Journal


[The following are excerpts of the testimony before the House Judiciary Committee,Washington, D.C., April 21, 2004.]

Mr. Chairman, members of the Committee, thank you for the opportunity to testify on the progress of those countries participating in our Visa Waiver Program (VWP) toward producing passports with embedded biometrics by October 26, 2004. I am here to explain the Administration's request for an extension of this deadline. Moreover, I want to report on the Department of State's progress in implementing our own biometric programs for U.S. passports and visas.

President Bush's number one priority is the security of our homeland. Secretary Ridge and I share that commitment. Secretary Ridge is responsible for our visa policy and I am responsible for its implementation.

The inclusion of biometrics in international travel documents is a critical step in upgrading security for America. And in protecting travelers, it is imperative that we improve our ability to verify the identities of prospective travelers to our country, especially individuals who might be terrorists, criminals, or others who present a security risk.

The Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act (EBSA) established October 26, 2004, as a deadline. By that date, VWPcountries must begin issuing their nationals only passports that incorporate biometric identifiers that comply with the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) standards. Also by that date, all VWP travelers must enter the U.S. with a machine-readable passport.

In May 2003, ICAO decided to make facial recognition technology the standard passport biometric, leaving VWP countries only seventeen months to bring a biometric passport from design to production. Such a process normally takes years. The EBSA does not provide a waiver provision and very few, if any, of the twenty-seven participating VWP countries will be able to meet this legislatively mandated deadline. Although the governments of the VWP countries share a commitment to this step forward, many are encountering the same challenges that we face in our own effort to introduce embedded biometrics to the U.S. passport.

The challenge provided to the international community by section 303 of the EBSA is a daunting one. Meeting it has taken VWP countries and the U.S. to the cutting edge of existing technologies. As a consequence we are confronted by complex technological issues. Among these are the security of the passport data, the interoperability of readers and passports, and the reliability of the chips imbedded in the passports will they last for the life of the passport, for example, which in most cases is ten years. We and our VWP partners are steadily resolving these issues, but studying them and then achieving success in dealing with them takes time. Moreover, we want to get the science as right as possible before we spend dollars, implement, and depend on these new measures to enhance our security.

This concern for taking the necessary time to get things right has not kept us from working aggressively with the VWP countries. We have urged them to issue biometric passports by the October 26, 2004 deadline. Moreover, we believe that success in this international effort to provide better security for our citizens requires U.S. leadership.

That is why in the ICAO working groups, for example, we led in advocating the successful inclusion of biometrics in travel documents. In the G-8, we strongly advocated support for ICAO leadership in biometrics and we participate actively in a special working group on biometrics established by the G-8 ministers of Home and Justice Affairs. At every opportunity around the world, State Department officials seek to educate VWP government representatives, journalists and citizens from these countries about the requirements and deadlines. In addition, VWP countries have sent representatives to Washington and we have had full and open discussions on the issues.

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