Analyst attacks biometrics as US delays passport plan

23 Jun 2004

Following calls for more delays in the introduction of machine-readable passports in countries with close ties to the US, the analyst firm Ovum has questioned the use of biometric technology on such a large scale.

Last week the Departments of State and Homeland Security called for a two-year delay on the 27 October 2004 deadline for introducing machine-readable passports with a computer chip containing a digital photo. This moratorium would give participating countries more time to implement compatible systems.

The measures were originally put in place as a way of controlling more closely the flow of visitors entering the US. There are 27 visa waiver nations, including Ireland, Britain, France and Japan, whose citizens can enter the US without visas for short periods of time. Under current law, they have until 26 October 2004 to issue machine-readable passports embedded with the chip containing biometric information on the passport holder. That deadline has since been extended by one year but there are fears that many of these countries will not be able to meet that date.

Ovum senior analyst Graham Titterington said he was not surprised at the decision to extend the original deadline and he cast doubts on the system being chosen as being potentially incapable of handling such a large amount of data. “We, like many others, are still unconvinced that biometrics technology has demonstrated the scalability necessary for such a large-scale deployment,” he said in a briefing note. Titterington added that he had been “certainly not impressed by a recent demonstration of supposedly reliable biometric technology” in London earlier this year.

“If the US government had gone ahead with the passport scheme without adequate technology, it would have caused havoc at the airports. The question now is whether an extra year will be enough to deliver the required technology – and frankly nobody knows the answer. The IT industry has been unable to deliver in three years, so how can we be sure it will deliver in four years? We can’t.”

Titterington added that this uncertainty would probably have consequences for large-scale European identity management projects, such as the UK National ID Card scheme. “The lesson we should learn is to be very wary about building legislation – and indeed business strategy – on unproven technology.”

Although the Government has decided in principle that biometric information should be included on Irish passports, this is not done currently. According to the Department of Foreign Affairs, the earliest that biometric passports may be issued is 2005, assuming the Government approves their introduction. In the meantime an ongoing biometrics feasibility study is taking place. The exact timeline for completion of the study is not yet known, but it is likely to be within the next few months, a Department official said.

Ireland already issues machine-readable passports but the current passport system is undergoing a major modernisation programme. The next generation of passports currently in development will have a polycarbonate page where it will be possible to insert a chip containing biometric data at a later date. The Department official said that Ireland would not have passports available in time for the original US deadline of October this year, but added that it would have a programme in place by that date.

The issue of biometrics is also being examined seriously at EU level. Last week as part of the Irish EU presidency a conference was held as part of moves to progress the issues around biometric technology and its increasing impact on European citizens. The objectives of the two-day event were to create a pan-European approach to implementing large-scale biometrics projects such as those needed for passport and visa issuance. It emerged at the conference that the EU still has not settled upon a standard for biometrics, whether facial scan, digital fingerprinting or iris recognition or some combination of these.

By Gordon Smith