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Ireland has launched its e-passport, just days ahead of a US deadline to bring in biometric passports or risk being booted from the visa waiver scheme.

The new, high-tech document includes a secure, contactless electronic chip to store encrypted digital information on the holder's identity, biographical information, and a digital image identical to that of the holder.

The microchip embedded in the passport can be read by a special chip reader, while digital signatures verify the data's authenticity, or reveal if the data has been tampered with.

The new e-passport scraped in ahead of the 26 October deadline to meet the US's visa waiver requirement. Under new legislation passed in the wake of the 11 September 2001 attacks, machine readable passports issued after 26 October must have biometric data included if the traveller wishes to take advantage of the visa wavier programme for short stays. Travellers from some 27 European countries are currently allowed to travel to the US for 90 days without a visa, once their passport is machine readable.

Ireland is one of the top 10 visiting nations to the US, and some 500,000 people visited the country last year.

The project, which was undertaken with Bearing Point, was delivered in line with International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) standards in just seven months, and underwent rigorous trial and testing procedures.

"We have brought this project to completion within time and well within budget," said the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Dermot Ahern, in a statement on Monday.

Earlier this year, the Government estimated the cost of the scheme for 2006 at some €8.8m, but the final figure is much less, Ahern pointed out.

"The cost of introducing the e-passport was estimated at €8.8m at the outset and it has been completed for €6.1m. The savings made on this project will be invested productively elsewhere," he said. "We achieved this by clearly defining our system requirements, implementing very strict budgetary control and constantly reviewing, throughout the life of the project, the necessity for each item of expenditure."

BearingPoint built the original automated passport system (APS) in 2004 for the Government, which has since issued more than one million passports to date and managed a record increase in passport applications since its implementation. The existing APS was modified to capture the biometric information from the holder's photograph.

Travellers will also be subject to facial recognition technology, which the Government is planning to bring in to coincide with the e-passport release.

However, there are more restrictions coming down the line, with European legislation dictating that the holders' fingerprints have to be added to all passports by 28 February 2008.

Copyright © 2006, ENN

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