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U.S. Gives 27 Nations Another Extension on Tougher Passports

June 16, 2005|Nicole Gaouette | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Bush administration efforts to bolster aviation security met another setback Wednesday when Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff announced a one-year delay in stricter passport requirements for 27 nations whose citizens can enter the United States without a visa.

It is the second time the United States has extended the deadline for the countries -- most of which are in Europe and Asia -- to embed their passports with a biometric chip that can hold a fingerprint, iris scan or photograph.

Aviation security is an administration priority, and analysts say the deadline extensions are evidence of how difficult it is to make the nation's air travel system secure. The introduction of biometric passports has been hindered by the number of countries involved and by disagreements over privacy, a problem that may impair the passports' effectiveness.

"These initiatives require extensive international cooperation," said Rey Koslowski, director of the Research Program on Border Control and Homeland Security at Rutgers University in Newark, N.J. "It's a much more difficult task to reach agreements among countries on technological standards on privacy than picking out the technology itself."

The countries with visa waivers are Andorra, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Britain, Brunei, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Monaco, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, San Marino, Singapore, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland. Last year about 15 million people from those countries came to the United States.

In 2002, Congress extended by a year those countries' October 2003 deadline to produce machine-readable passports with biometric identification.

When it became clear that some of the European countries would miss the October 2004 deadline, it was extended to October of this year.

European countries have been wary of the project, citing cost and privacy concerns, and some countries have pointed out that the United States does not require biometric information in its own passports.

Regulations announced Wednesday require the visa-waiver countries to add a tamper-proof digital photo to passports by this October, instead of the biometric chip.

A test of "e-passports" using that technology began Wednesday at Los Angeles International Airport and at the international airport in Sydney, Australia. Airline crews from the United States, Australia and New Zealand will use the passports this summer, allowing Homeland Security to test the software.

By October 2006, the 27 nations must include the biometric chip in their passports, but it will only contain a photograph, not a fingerprint or iris scan, said Homeland Security spokesman Jared Egan.

He attributed the decision to place only photographs on the chip to privacy concerns "within the U.S. and internationally."

Egan said a digital photo fulfilled the congressional mandate for a biometric identifier. But others have argued that a photo alone is insufficient.

"The point is, you need biometric information, something to biometrically confirm the person is who she says she is -- fingerprints, iris scans, something," said former Homeland Security Inspector General Clark Kent Ervin, who heads the Homeland Security Initiative at the Aspen Institute.

The difficulty of establishing international standards for equipment has also delayed implementation of the biometric chip. Though Congress had given visa-waiver countries until October 2004 to produce the passports, it wasn't until late March of last year that the International Civil Aviation Organization decided what kinds of chips would be used.

That left five months to identify and install readers that corresponded to the selected chips.

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