Passports to get facial biometrics

The State Department plans to develop "intelligent" passports that will carry facial images with biometric data on advanced computer chips.

The department will adopt a standard approved in late May by the International Civil Aviation Organization, which selected facial biometrics as the identification tool and high-capacity, contactless chips as the storage device. Contactless chips transmit data via low-power radio frequency, rather than direct contact with a reader device.

"We want a globally interoperable system," said Frank Moss, deputy assistant secretary for passport services at State.

The move will put State in compliance with recent congressional mandates.

The Enhanced Border Security Act and Visa Entry Reform Act of 2002 require countries in the U.S. Visa Waiver Program to develop biometrics-enabled passports that comply with ICAO's standards.

This month, the department issued a request for information from vendors on integrating contactless chips into passports, which traditionally have been paper booklets. State also is seeking information on the chips' availability, technical performance, security, durability and delivery.

In the RFI, State called for minimum chip capacity of 64K, double the 32K minimum designated by ICAO. The department estimates that a single facial biometric image would take up 12K. The chips also would contain biodata and other information secured by digital signatures.

The department plans to release a request for proposals this fall, Moss said. It plans to pilot the intelligent passports beginning Oct. 26, 2004, and test them at a domestic passport issuance facility. Full implementation is slated to follow by the start of 2006, at an estimated annual cost of $100 million, he said.

"I know this is aggressive," Moss said. "We're busy."

While State plans to use facial recognition, the Homeland Security Department's entry-exit biometrics system will store two fingerprint images and a digital photograph of visitors to the United States in databases at consular offices and points of entry nationwide.

Facial biometrics alone don't fit DHS' needs, said Stewart Verdery, the assistant secretary for policy and planning at the department's Border and Transportation Security Directorate.

"In the U.S., there's no database of faces," Verdery said. "There's nothing to check [facial biometrics] against in our country as far as I know."

Vandana Sinha writes for Government Computer News.

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