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A senior US government official has laid out detailed plans for the timing and form of US government issued biometric passports.

Frank Moss, deputy assistant secretary for Passport Services, presented his organisation's plans to evolve to a new, more secure "intelligent document" from today's paper-based passports at the Smart Card Alliance's Government Conference and Expo conference last week.

"Our goal is to begin production by October 26, 2004," Moss announced.

Current plans call for the new passport books to include a contactless smart chip based on the 14443 standard, with a minimum of 32 Kbytes of EEPROM storage. The chip will contain a compressed full-face image for use as a biometric. European biometric passports, by contrast, are planned to feature both retinal and fingerprint recognition biometrics on their smart cards.

For US passports, the image and the passport information stored on the contactless chip will be digitally signed to ensure the integrity of both the data and the passport itself.

With this approach "you can read a chip and confirm its validity, but you cannot create one. That is the beauty of public key technology," said Moss.

The United States produces about seven million passports per year.

For the US Passport Services' program to move forward successfully other countries must also agree to common specifications, so US officials are working closely with the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to drive the process forward. There's little doubt this is a US government initiative, fueled by post-9/11 terrorism fears, which is rapidly gaining momentum.

Under the US Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act of 2002, countries whose citizens enjoy visa-free travel to the United States must issue passports with biometric identifiers no later than October 26, 2004.

Quite how effective biometric passports will be in frustrating terrorist activity is a completely different matter... ®

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