Feds Advance Deadline for Some Biometric Systems at Airports


The Bush administration is speeding up plans to have new biometric identification systems in place at international airports by December even though industry representatives say only immature systems are currently perfected.

Congress directed the government to come up with new systems for all travelers by Oct. 26, 2004, but the Department of Homeland Security says it wants a biometric system in place by the end of 2003 for screening visitors from largely Third World countries that currently require visas.

Americans travelers will soon be required to get similar biometric travel documents along with their passports to go overseas because several other industrialized nations are also experimenting with biometric identification systems to monitor incoming visitors.

Denny Carlton, director of Washington operations for the International Biometric Group, a New York industry consulting group, said the Department of Homeland security this month told a meeting of industry representatives that the agency wants to have the first of the biometric machines installed and operating by the first day of 2004 at major seaports and airports, and at all 424 ports of entry by 2005.

“The deadline was viewed as very aggressive,” Carlton said. He said the industry is waiting for the agency to spell out its expectations for the new machines later this summer, including issues of acceptable error rates.

Currently only smart cards are available to store information. That would limit the government to storing only fingerprint data on the chips. Much larger smart cards would be needed for facial-recognition or iris-scan technologies.

Carlton said the session with Department of Homeland officials appeared to be the first time the U.S. government got industry feedback on the feasibility and technological problems of its ambitious plans. Department of Homeland Security spokesman Dennis Murphy said Congress gave the agency $400 million to begin the program and set a deadline of September 2004 for installing it.

Murphy added that the government understands there are still technological hurdles to be overcome before advanced technologies like iris- and facial-recognition technologies can be employed in travel documents. Experiments with facial-recognition technology have shown high rates of error; iris recognition has fewer errors.

Even fingerprint biometric data, which the government intends to use first, can be thrown off if the visitor uses hand lotion on a flight.

Under the new U.S. Visit system, travelers from countries where visas are currently required—largely Third World and Muslim countries—will be required to file their biometric identification by showing up in person at the nearest U.S. embassy and completing the necessary procedures with their application for a visa.

The Homeland Security agency will then track the visitor’s stay in the United States, to ensure that visitors do not overstay their visas without approval or a valid reason such as hospitalization.

The U.S. government has not tracked foreign visitors since the 1950s.

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