State on the verge of awarding e-passport contracts

The State Department and the Government Printing Office in the next few weeks will make the final decision on which and how many companies will provide electronic passports for U.S. citizens.

GPO last fall awarded contracts for sample e-passports to ASK Contactless Technologies Inc. of France; Axalto Inc. of Austin, Texas; BearingPoint Inc. of McLean, Va.; EDS Corp.; Infineon Technologies North America Corp. of San Jose, Calif.; Oberthur Card Systems of Rancho Dominguez, Calif.; OTI America Inc. of Fort Lee, N.J.; and Supercom Inc. of New York.

Joanne Artz, a State policy adviser for biometrics in the Bureau of Consular Affairs, said earlier this week that the team will finish evaluating sample passports with embedded contactless chips and antennas from nine vendors and start producing electronic passports this spring. State and GPO will award one or more contracts, but Artz could not say exactly how many.

State plans to test the new e-passports, which will include facial images with biometric data, this spring with frequent travelers at Los Angeles International Airport, Artz added. New Zealand and Australia also are taking part in the pilot.

"We are testing the chips' durability, security, how [they] work with our processes at GPO and with our printing facilities," Artz said at the 4th Annual Smart Card in E-Government Conference in Washington, sponsored by the Smart Card Alliance, an industry trade association in Princeton Junction, N.J.

"There is a series of steps we are putting each sample passport through and seeing if it works. We want something that works well all the time and with the systems in place," Artz said. She would not say how many of the nine vendors' products have been tested.

Artz said that by this summer State would start converting passport facilities to accept biometric passports.

Congress set an October 2004 deadline for the U.S. and 27 visa waiver countries to begin using e-passports, but extended the deadline for 12 months. The deadline may need to be extended for another year, Artz said, because State will not finish installing biometric readers until summer of 2006.

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