PARIS The U.S. Department of Homeland Security will host a testing event for electronic passports featuring biometric data next week, opening a can of technological worms that will tax the ingenuity, patience and diplomacy of dozens of national governments, chip vendors and reader manufacturers.
Foremost among the questions raised by the three-day meeting in West Virginia is whether the world is ready to meet even the extended deadline a little more than one year from now that the U.S. government has set for 27 visa-waiver countries to issue biometrically enabled, machine-readable passports if their citizens are to visit the United States.
Acknowledging that two past deadlines were unrealistic, the U.S. House of Representatives last month voted to grant visa-waiver countries which include most of Europe, Japan, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand until Oct. 26, 2005, to deploy biometrically enabled passports. The bill has yet to be debated in the Senate. Because of the difficulty of marshaling the appropriate technology, the Bush administration favors a deadline of November 2006.
"Rushing a solution to meet the current deadline virtually guarantees that we will have systems that are not interoperable," said Secretary of State Colin Powell in urging Congress to delay the legislative deadline by two years. Testifying before the House Judiciary Committee in April, Powell added, "Such a result may undercut international acceptance of this new technology as well as compound rather than ease our overall challenge."
Indeed, implementing biometrics technologies on a global scale "is a huge task," said Joseph Kim, senior consultant at International Biometric Group, an independent consulting firm based in New York. Congress, he added, passed the legislation based on "a misconception of how standardized the technology is."
The biometric industry aggravated the problem by overpromising its technology amid the national post-9/11 angst. That contributed to unwarranted optimism among U.S. policymakers about the availability of bug-free electronic passports. Vendors eager to win contracts insist on the readiness of their wares, but the biometric products in question have undergone no field-testing. "Without gaining real experience and getting more data, we won't know how far we are and how good we are," said Andreas Raeschmeier, general manager of the financial and ID division of STMicroelectronics.
In addition, the unilateral U.S. mandate has ruffled feathers among U.S. allies. Because 20 of the 27 countries in the Visa Waiver Program are in Europe, the European Commission is expected by year's end to develop new specifications for European passports that will, like those issued by the United States, adhere to standards set by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).
However, Europe is determined not to be railroaded by Washington in the areas of data protection and privacy, said industry sources and policymakers here, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "Europe cannot stop the [U.S.] train, but at least we want to be able to decide what to put in the train," said Detlef Houdeau, senior director of the Secure Mobile Solutions business group at Infineon Technologies AG in Germany.
Some technical elements for biometric passports are in place. ICAO last year defined such basic frameworks as what biometric technology is to be incorporated in next-generation travel documents. It specified the inclusion of face images, plus mandatory biometric data of some sort (fingerprints and iris recognition are optional). Two months ago, ICAO issued more detailed technical specifications defining data structures, command sets and communication between a passport and a reader terminal, all necessary for biometrics data stored in E2PROM inside a contactless chip to be read by a reader.
Infineon's Houdeau said 95 percent of ICAO specs on the table today are "frozen." In parallel, the International Organization for Standardization is working on a certification program for the technology.
But industry and government agencies have barely begun tackling issues related to implementing the technology. No one knows how accurately the ICAO specs will be implemented on chips, readers and passports. The pretest to be held July 27-29 in West Virginia will be the maiden voyage for most of the crucial components. A field trial involving thousands of real people carrying electronic passports won't happen until next year.