Electronic Design

Biometrics On Passports: Best Bet For Tight Security

The 9/11 Commission Report offers myriad recommendations on how we can tighten homeland security, but the finding that offers the greatest impact is one being addressed by electronic designers--at least those of you working on biometric identification systems.

The report's faulting of government for a "failure of imagination" points to the difficulties of trying to outguess terrorists or anticipate their next target. In my mind, our true failure was allowing known suspects to enter the country in the first place.

When we secure our own homes, the goal is simple: whether via guard dog or alarm system, we keep the bad guys out. There's no need to imagine what weaponry they'll carry or what mode of attack they might use once inside the house. We'd never be able to anticipate every twisted possibility. It is no surprise that we failed to imagine a plot as diabolic as the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

The efficacy of biometrics for advanced border control is enhanced by the fact that there is, fortunately, a limited number of fanatics bent on committing suicidal terrorist attacks. It's inaccurate to portray terrorism as "an omnipotent hydra of destruction," says the report. The September 11 hijackers included known al Qaeda operatives who should have been watchlisted and identified, and they were able to get through our border control using fraudulent passports. The report describes the attackers as a "determined and capable group of plotters... a group that was fragile and occasionally left vulnerable by the marginal, unstable people often attracted to such causes." In other words, a group that should be easy enough to identify and keep out of the country.

In light of these findings, the 9/11 Commission recommends that the government should "target terrorist travel" and use biometric identification to build a comprehensive screening system across agencies and governments. The report calls for quickly completing a biometric entry-exit system for the U.S. and for an international biometric standard that can "dramatically strengthen the world's ability to intercept individuals who could pose catastrophic threats." Biometric passports store digital records of an individual's identification traits, such as fingerprints or retinal patterns. Biometric readers verify the stored record with the traits of the people presenting themselves at the security checkpoint.

Of course, a biometric ID system will only be effective if coupled with improved intelligence on the terrorist base. The commission also recommends a revamped profiling system with improved "no fly" and "automatic selectee" lists and improved gathering and sharing of information between intelligence agencies.

The international rollout of biometrically enabled passports has encountered delays, but progress is being made. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) met last month to finalize technical specifications for passport standards. ICAO has decided to use face recognition as the standard for biometric encoding. As of this writing,the group was meeting in Cairo to finalize contactless communications protocols.

While biometrics are a proven solution in closed systems, there are formidable challenges in implementing a cross-border system allowing interoperability of biometric readers and passports. Given these challenges, the U.S. deadline requiring "visa-waiver" countries to have biometrics on passports for entry into the U.S. is being pushed out by at least another year to October 2005

Time is of the essence, but it is also essential for the U.S. to work with the ICAO standards to ensure international interoperability. The U.S. must be careful not to move unilaterally on these standards. I am confident that with international cooperation, the technology challenges will be solved effectively, given the ingenuity of the international engineering communities.

Here in the U.S., the Transportation Security Administration is setting the stage for greater domestic use of the biometrics. It is conducting several trial programs this summer.

First, the TSA has kicked off a Registered Traveler pilot program to improve security screening. It rolled out last month in Minneapolis in conjunction with Northwest Airlines. Volunteers in Northwest's frequent flier program enrolled by providing either a finger scan or iris scan and allowing the TSA to do a background check. The travelers are now able to use a designated lane where secondary screening checks are not required. Tests also are being conducted with United Airlines in Los Angeles, Continental in Houston, and American Airlines at Boston and Washington National airports.

Next, the TSA has been working on a Transportation Worker Identification Credential pilot program to develop a biometric identification card for 2 million transportation workers at airports, seaports, and rail yards. And finally, the TSA has started an access control pilot program with eight airports to evaluate RFID, biometrics, and advanced video surveillance technologies.

These domestic programs offer some promising ways to extend the power of biometrics. But our top priority must be integration with the international efforts to quickly bring biometrics to passports on a global scale.

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