Technologies that scan faces and fingerprints will become a standard part of travel for foreign visitors next year, and for all travelers in the near future. The technology, known as biometrics, has been developing for years, but largely because of security concerns after the attacks on Sept. 11, its arrival has been greatly accelerated.
One deadline looms large -- Oct. 26, 2004. In a little more than a year, the State Department and immigration bureau must begin issuing visas and other documents with the body-identifying technologies to foreign visitors. The change is mandated by border security legislation passed by Congress last May. The federal government has started issuing border-crossing cards for Mexican citizens and green cards that display fingerprints and photos.
By the same deadline, the 27 countries whose citizens can travel to the United States without visas must begin issuing passports with computer chips containing facial recognition data or lose their special status. People from those countries with passports issued before the deadline may still travel to the United States without visas as long as their governments have begun biometric identification programs. Given the complexity of the technology, many countries are struggling to meet the deadline, and some in the industry say that it may have to be extended.
Privacy advocates expressed dismay at what they see as pressure being applied to Europe. "Our government has forced on European governments the obligation to adopt biometric identifiers though most in the U.S. still oppose such systems," said Marc Rotenberg, the head of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, an advocacy group. He predicted, however, that the United States would soon adopt those same technologies.
Officials from the State Department said mandatory use of the biometric identifiers is scheduled to begin in three years. They have announced plans to test American passports with computer chips by Oct. 26, 2004. At a recent card technology conference, the deputy assistant secretary of state for passport services, Frank Moss, said the department planned to have all new passports containing biometric data by 2006 at an estimated annual cost of $100 million. About 55 million American passports are in circulation, and 7 million are issued annually.
"Including the standards and implementing the standards, not only is it more secure for other countries, it's more secure for us," said Kelly Shannon, a spokeswoman for the State Department. "The idea is that it is contingent on reciprocal treatment for United States citizens."
(Written by Jennifer Lee and published in the 24 August 2003 issue of The New York Times.)
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