• United States

U.S. government pushes for biometrics in passports

Jul 28, 20033 mins
BiometricsEnterprise Applications

* Biometrics to be used in U.S. and EU passports

In the 1967 movie, “The Graduate,” Mr. McGuire (played by Walter Brooke) takes Benjamin Braddock (played by Dustin Hoffman) aside and has the following conversation:

McGuire: I just want to say one word to you . . . just one word.

Braddock: Yes, sir.

McGuire: Are you listening?

Braddock: Yes, sir, I am.

McGuire: . . . Plastics.

Thirty years later, I suggested the word be updated to “biometrics” (see “Psst . . . just one word”

Five years on, I’ll have to admit that biometrics haven’t exactly taken the world by storm. In fact, most recent commentary, articles and discussion have revolved around the drawbacks of biometrics rather than the benefits. “Business Week,” for example, recently ran an article entitled “Why Biometrics Is No Magic Bullet” (

Generally, though, these articles are talking about using biometric data (typically facial scans) to compare to poorly captured still or video pictures in an attempt to find people wanted by police or security authorities. In truth, it says more about the hardware conditions for capturing the data then it does about the methodologies of identification, but that’s not what interests us here.

We need to talk about biometrics as a method of asserting identity rather than a method of assigning identity to an otherwise unknown individual. In this regard, certain recent moves by the U.S. government and the European Union are significant.

The U.S. Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act of 2002 mandates that citizens of countries who are not required to obtain visas to travel to the U.S. must have machine-readable passports with biometric identifiers no later than Oct. 26, 2004. Lacking these, the potential visitors (from countries such as Britain and France) will need to spend long hours obtaining an U.S. visa. Since it’s expected that many of these countries will invoke the same requirement on U.S. travelers, the U.S. Department of State has mandated that all U.S. passports issued after that date will also be machine-readable and carry biometric identifiers.

Current U.S. plans call for the new passports to include a contactless smart chip based on the 14443 standard, with a minimum of 32K bytes of EEPROM storage to contain a compressed full-face image for use as a biometric identifier. European biometric passports are currently scheduled to have retinal and fingerprint recognition biometrics on their smart cards. U.S. issued passports, at least, will be electronically signed using standard public-key infrastructure methods, to ensure the integrity and security of the data.

We’re seeing passports used as primary identification documents more and more, even among people who never travel outside their own country. Since it’s a nationally issued document it appears to carry more authority than state issued cards (such as driver’s licenses).

With the move to biometrics, a number of things should happen which should pique our interest. First, biometric devices will become more widespread and, due to economies of scale, should become much less expensive. Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, as people use the new biometric passports they’ll become more comfortable with the technology. It hasn’t been cost, after all, that has stunted the widespread use of biometric identity devices but the reluctance of people to use them fueled by stories in the popular press like the “Business Week” article I mentioned above.

If the Benjamin Braddocks of 1998 had taken my advice then I think that today they’d be poised to be the leaders of the next generation of identity management providers.