Doubts over biometric passports


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May 24, 2005
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Doubts over biometric passports

Biometric passports alone will not be enough to counter terrorism threats, a leading expert has warned.

Barry Kefauver of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) told a conference in London that new so-called e-passports need to be linked to databases held by police and other agencies.

He added that countries must take measures to ensure criminals and terrorists cannot get hold of fake travel documents.

The UK Passport Service plans to introduce biometric passports, which contain chips with data from a facial scan, in early 2006.

Hard work

Mr Kefauver is head of the ICAO's biometric working group that is creating global standards that will lead to travel documents bearing biometric identifiers.

He told delegates at the Digital Identity Forum in London that biometrics on passports would be no panacea against the threat of terrorism.

"It is nothing but a tool to enhance the human inspection process," he told delegates at the Digital Identity Forum.

A fake passport in the hands of a terrorist is as important a tool as a bomb
Barry Kefauver

The 27 mainly European countries which benefit from the US visa waiver scheme have until October 2006 to introduce biometric-enabled passports for every citizen. Those that do not hit the deadline face having their people turned away at US borders.

Critics of the policy have said that the political desire for biometrics is simply a knee-jerk reaction to the events of September 11 but Mr Kefauver denied this was the case.

"We have been pressing for this since 1992 when the group was set up. That can't be considered hurried," he said.

"There has been a lot of myths and hysteria surrounding this," he added.

These include concerns that the machines installed at airports to interpret the biometrics could be "read" at greater distances than officially acknowledged, meaning anyone could eavesdrop on the information.

Access to documents

Privacy advocates are also concerned about how data stored on the new e-passports would be shared.

While Mr Kefauver acknowledged that data-sharing was highly controversial and needed safeguards, it would be crucial if the e-passport is going to offer greater security.

At the moment the idea of making the passport information compatible with other databases was in its infancy, Mr Kefauver said.

He was pleased that efforts were under way to create an infrastructure to allow passports to be checked against an international list of lost and stolen travel documents.

This is one way that criminals and terrorists can get their hands on false passports, although by far the most common method was to apply for a new one using a fake ID, he said.

Often, this is achieved by getting hold of the birth certificate of someone who died as an infant and using it to apply for a raft of other official documentation, including passport and drivers' licence.

With 7,000 different types of birth certificates available in the US, this was a relatively easy procedure at the moment and one of the weak links that needed to be closed if the new generation of passports were going to work, said Mr Kefauver.

"A fake passport in the hands of a terrorist is as important a tool as a bomb," he warned.

Despite the pitfalls, Mr Kefauver insisted e-passports were the way forward. "It is dramatically more secure than any predecessor," he said.

By Jane Wakefield
BBC News technology reporter

Story from BBC NEWS:
Published: 2005/10/27 10:05:18 GMT