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Biometrics Play New Role In Passport Technology
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Biometrics Play New Role In Passport Technology

Technology

Biometrics Play New Role In Passport Technology

Biometrics Play New Role In Passport Technology
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Biometric device at George H. W. Bush Airport i

U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer Thomas Wuenschel looks on as an arriving passenger uses a new biometric scanner at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston last year. Biometric devices like these will be tied to data embedded on new ePassports. Dave Einsel/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Dave Einsel/Getty Images
Biometric device at George H. W. Bush Airport

U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer Thomas Wuenschel looks on as an arriving passenger uses a new biometric scanner at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston last year. Biometric devices like these will be tied to data embedded on new ePassports.

Dave Einsel/Getty Images
British biometric passport i

A light is used to show the security features and the authenticity of the new British biometric European Union passport, which is embedded with a microchip. Alex Wong/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Alex Wong/Getty Images
British biometric passport

A light is used to show the security features and the authenticity of the new British biometric European Union passport, which is embedded with a microchip.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

If you have a new U.S. passport, you're holding a document that is harder to fake than ever before. And while the technology doesn't make passports absolutely secure, it is changing the way America protects its borders.

They are called ePassports, and the tiny chip that makes them so special contains what's known as biometric information. Biometrics are measurements of individual physical and behavioral characteristics, like your earlobe or your iris or the structure of your face.

Denis Chagnon is with the International Civil Aviation Organization, or ICAO. It's the United Nations group in charge of, among other things, developing international aviation standards like the language pilots have to use when speaking to the control tower. ICAO has made facial recognition the global standard for travel identification.

"You measure different points on the face, for example the eyes and nostrils, and the distance between two specific points on the face. And then when you read it on the other end, then you compare those same two points, and that's why they are always the same — they have to be the same one to the other," he says.

Facial recognition depends on bone structure — things like the size of eye sockets or the distance between the eyes. Gain weight, grow a beard, or even have surgery, and those relationships don't change. This biometric information is stored on that passport chip and then is compared with a real human face — like one presenting itself at Customs, for example.

A Big Advance In Border Security

About 70 countries use the ePassport so far, and the system will work better as more countries come on board. But according to Tom Bush, the assistant director of the FBI's Criminal Justice Information Services, this represents a big advance in border security.

"We have closed some of the gaps that were out there, because we are using biometric-based capabilities instead of name-based," Bush says.

Name-based systems were basically databases of names and aliases of the world's most wanted. The system was riddled with inefficiencies — from spelling mistakes to misidentifications. Because facial recognition is based on an algorithm, it is more definitive. And Bush says they are looking at ways to use other biometrics that could identify suspects the moment they step off the plane.

"As there are advances with facial recognition, iris scan, or voice, gait, earlobe configuration — these are all biometrics that, as they develop and mature, could come into play and be of great assistance," Bush says.

Subverting The Technology

Of course no one system is infallible. Facial recognition software, for example, is not 100 percent accurate, so it could miss suspects or misidentify the innocent. And all this security depends on the officer at the border matching the passport to the passenger at the counter, or officials who make sure real documents are used to get the passport in the first place.

For example, the GAO, a congressional investigative service, released a report this week that showed how investigators managed to get four ePassports using fake IDs. Officials didn't check to see if the underlying documents submitted for the passport were real.

The former deputy assistant secretary for Passport Services, Barry Kefauver, says criminals will always try to exploit vulnerabilities like human error, "because these are paths of lesser resistance than counterfeiting or trying to monkey around with the book itself."

Kefauver's concern is that criminals will somehow obtain blank passports and create a fake one.

"To me, the best way to get a passport in whatever identity I would want is to find that cocaine addicted passport adjudicator — and every country has them — come up with whatever amount of pounds or yen or dollars it takes, and get my identity on a real live document," he says.

That's not so far-fetched. Last June, a van driving out of a passport production center in Britain was hijacked, and there were some 3,000 ePassports inside. The passport chips were deactivated, making them useless, but the theft may be a hint of what's to come.

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