In 2002, the new Enhanced Border Security Act (EBSA) required all countries on the Visa Waiver Program—countries deemed not a likely threat to U.S. security—to begin issuing their nationals biometric passports in two years. Passports with machine-readable fingerprints, face recognition or iris scans would, the argument goes, help prevent terrorists from entering the country. But by June of this year, the House of Representatives voted to extend that deadline citing scientific and technical challenges for the delay. While Secretary of State Colin Powell publicly encouraged not a one- but a two-year extension, critics are skeptical time will yield anything but an unreliable and invasive system. Barely a year after the EBSA was formed, the failure of face-recognition technology at Boston’s Logan Airport was made public by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). “It is said that this technology is ‘evolving,’” says Barry Steinhardt of the ACLU, “but there is no guarantee that this technology will ever work. It may be that the concept is fundamentally flawed.”
Despite such criticism, many countries are pushing ahead with their own
biometric testing. In April, the United Kingdom Passport Service announced a six-month trial that will test face recognition, electronic fingerprints and iris scans. The trial involves 10,000 volunteers and will attempt to determine the technologies’ readiness and costs, as well as which biometric identifier is the least invasive.
When asked what he saw as the chief challenge to the biometric industry, Russ Davis, CEO of ISL Biometrics, said: “Educating the public that biometrics is not theoretical or science, that it is a practical technology that you can use now.”
As for the extended deadline, Gartner analysts believe delays in the passport program will hurt the entire biometric industry. In the unambiguously titled report “Delay of U.S. Visa Program Will Slow Biometric Industry,” Gartner analysts state that because potential private sector buyers fear adopting technology that could be incompatible with federal standards, delays in U.S. programs will necessarily stunt growth in the entire industry.