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Homeland Security


22 April 2005

Congressional Panel Chair Urges Biometric Passport Deadline Be Met

Security concerns loom as Visa Waiver Program countries struggle to comply

By Anthony Kujawa
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington – Requiring Visa Waiver Program (VWP) travelers with passports issued on or after October 26 to present biometric passports for visa-free entry to the United States is critical to border security and protection against terrorist attacks, U.S. lawmakers say.

At an April 21 congressional subcommittee hearing, lawmakers examined VWP countries’ ability to meet requirements of the Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act of 2002 (a U.S. law also known as the Border Security Act). 

The act originally required that the government of each VWP country certify it has a program to produce tamper-resistant, machine-readable passports that incorporate a biometric identifier that complies with International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) standards by October 26, 2004. In summer 2004, Congress extended the deadline one year.  VWP enables citizens of 27 countries to visit the United States for tourism or business for up to 90 days without obtaining a visa. 

Biometrics is a means of identifying a person by unique biological features using advanced computerized recognition techniques. 

In his opening remarks, Congressman John Hostettler, chairman of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Border Security and Claims, said meeting the October 26 deadline would strengthen passport security by ensuring a passport properly identifies its bearer, providing the ability to verify identity biometrically, and making passports more difficult to alter and counterfeit.

But a number of countries, citing complex technology and privacy issues that need to be resolved before implementation, have said they are unlikely to meet the deadline. 

In a March 31 letter to the European Commission, House Judiciary Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner, an author of the 2002 Border Security Act, said an additional extension of the deadline was “unlikely.” He urged the commission to “plan without expectation that there will be an extension of the deadline, and encourage member states to do their best to meet the requirements.”

In statement prepared for the hearing, Sensenbrenner said: “The need for including the passport … requirements [in the Border Security Act] was not in dispute then [2002] and should not be in dispute now.”

“My goal in selecting the October 2004 deadline was to push countries to act promptly to modernize their passports.  Unfortunately, only a few countries took the deadline seriously,” he said, blaming in part  “weak” U.S. efforts “to convince the effected countries that we were serious.”

But the ranking Democrat on the subcommittee, Sheila Jackson Lee, cautioned that “denying long-standing friends and allies [entry to the United States under the VWP], simply because we are not willing to extend the deadline,” is not the best approach. 

“We were frugal and cautious by extending it [the October deadline] by just one year, not necessarily determining that it would take only a year” for VWP countries to meet requirements of the law, she said. The congresswoman from Texas said only 14 of the 27 affected countries are expected to be able to meet the October deadline. She also expressed concern about the disruptive effect the biometric requirement could have on the international tourism industry.

“The technology for the biometric feature needs to be fully developed and tested before it is put into use.  I am afraid that rushing these participating countries could result in passports that have unreliable biometric identifiers, which would not increase our security,” Jackson Lee said in a statement.  The U.S. Department of State estimates that demand for nonimmigrant visas in fiscal year 2006 will increase by more than 2 million in the absence of another extension.

Testifying before the committee, Joel F. Shaw, chief executive officer of BioDentity Systems Corporation, cited challenges countries face in meeting the deadline, including: the passage of legislation to support the capture, use, retention and sharing of biometric data; and the integration of a computer chip into passports in a manner that ensures long-term durability. 

Officials say privacy and interoperability issues, as well as production and procurement delays, are making it difficult for VWP nations to meet the deadline.  ICAO endorsed the use of facial-recognition software as the globally interoperable biometric for passports and chose the use of contactless chip technology as the globally interoperable storage media for this biometric. 

Incorporating the contactless chip in passports is not required by the U.S. law, explained Hostettler, but has added technical complexity to the production of the biometric passports.  Use of this technology also has led to concerns about the potential for identity theft when passports are scanned remotely by electronic devices.

Even though the EU adopted the chip standard for its member countries, the 2002 Border Security Act  has “no requirement for a chip to be placed in a passport or a visa,” Hostettler said.

“The European Union’s efforts to improve security are welcome, but the deadline is important to ensure the public that we are serious about border security and about protecting against future terrorist attacks potentially launched from Europe,” he added.

According to the U.S. law, only passports issued by VWP countries after the deadline must have a biometric component to be accepted for visa-free travel to the United States, Hostettler said.  He added that passports issued by VWP countries before the deadline will be accepted for visa-free travel to the United States until those passports expire. 

The following 27 countries are currently in the VWP: Andorra, Austria, Australia, Belgium, Brunei, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Monaco, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, San Marino, Singapore, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.

For more information, see a fact sheet released by U.S. Department of State and the Department of Homeland Security, on VWP biometric and machine-readable passport requirements.

(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)

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