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Face recognition passports expected by December

Yet hurdles could still delay technology

From Mike M. Ahlers
CNN Washington Bureau

State Department
Asa Hutchinson
Computing and Information Technology

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The first U.S. passport to feature facial-recognition technology should be produced by December, but the technology won't be widely distributed until late 2005, a State Department official told Congress on Tuesday.

Maura Harty, assistant secretary for consular affairs, said the State Department plans to test the high-tech passports by issuing them first to U.S. officials and diplomats.

But citing technological hurdles, she repeated a request that Congress postpone a looming deadline requiring 27 close U.S. allies to have similar passports in place by fall.

"Given the time that it has taken to resolve these technical, complex issues ... few of the visa waiver countries, if any, will meet the deadline," she said. "It is not a question of ill will. It is very much a question of difficult science."

On Monday, the House of Representatives voted to give visa-waiver countries a one-year extension on the deadline.

But Harty and Homeland Security Undersecretary Asa Hutchinson testified at a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday that it will take two years to perfect the technology.

"We have been told by almost all the countries that they cannot get it done within a year," Harty said.

Hutchinson said, "We believe that all countries can be compliant on November 30, 2006, and it should be a hard-and-fast deadline. It's important, I believe, for us to get this process right the first time."

Members of Congress, meanwhile, questioned the use of facial recognition technology in the passports, saying fingerprints would be a better identifier. The International Civil Aviation Organization chose facial recognition as the international standard for passports.

"Every policeman in America can access the fugitive, anybody, and put their fingerprints in the system and on a short notice determine whether or not a warrant is out for their arrest. You can't do that with a face," said Sen. Jeff Sessions, a Republican of Alabama.

Hutchinson said the United States believes that fingerprints "should be a significant part" of the system, but "we don't have a consensus in the international community to do that at this time."

The computer chip embedded in the new passports will have the capacity to include fingerprint information, he said.

Hutchinson acknowledged the shortcomings of the facial recognition technology.

He said it is "sufficient" at making one-on-one matches but cannot adequately match a face on a card to large databases of faces.

"We're hopeful that the technology improves as time goes on," he said.

Another problem is that the computer chips are not as durable as they need to be, he said.

"The chips have a life span currently of three to five years, and as you know in many instances the passports are issued for six to 10 years," Hutchinson said. "So right now you'll be adding a chip on there that has a shorter life span than the life of the passport itself."

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