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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Travelers to U.S. to Face Biometric ID Checks

WASHINGTON -- 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, 2001, 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.

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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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."

The adoption of biometric technologies has been held back for years by concerns about privacy and reliability, along with a lack of uniform standards. But in the last two years policies and standards have begun to catch up with the technologies.

The new biometrics technologies are meant to cut down on subjectivity in photo identification.

Biometric systems take digital measurements of a person's fingerprints, face, retinas or other characteristics and store the information on a computer chip or a machine-readable strip, which can be retrieved at border check points.

Upon arrival, travelers will be asked to put their fingers on scanners and to stand in front of facial recognition cameras to see if their measurements match the ones stored on the visa or passport. Biometric systems tested by the United States at the Mexican border have been sensitive enough to distinguish between identical twins.

The new computer-chip passports are based on an international standard set in May by the International Civil Aviation Organization, a United Nations agency.

The new passports will use facial recognition technology contained on encrypted computer chips similar to those found in so-called smart cards.

"What was required was a globally interoperable biometric -- one biometric that could be used worldwide and can be read worldwide," said Denis Shagnon, spokesman for the organization.

Under the new standards, countries would also be allowed to add additional biometric technologies to the passports, like fingerprints or iris scans.

Many privacy advocates have raised concerns about the reliability of the systems, noting that the city of Tampa decided in the last week not to renew its facial recognition surveillance system because of a lack of results. But Shagnon said the passport system relies partly on facial measurements that do not change as people age or even get plastic surgery.

The International Labor Organization, another UN agency, has recently set a biometric standard for identity documents for the 1.2 million workers on ships worldwide. The new identity cards for maritime employees use fingerprint data and photographs stored digitally in a two-dimensional bar code.