The war against your privacy and freedom is alive and well, all in the name of safety from the almighty terrorist threat. Ryan Singel for Wired News searches out the facts.
As at March 31, an international aviation group is completing new passport standards, setting the groundwork for all passports issued world-wide to include digitised photographs that a computer can read remotely and compare to the face of the traveller or to a database of mug shots.
Supporters hope the system will banish fake passports and help fight terrorism. Critics say the standards will enable a global infrastructure for surveillance and lead to a host of national biometrics databases, including ones run by countries with troubling human rights records.
The International Civil Aviation Organisation, or ICAO, is met in Cairo, Egypt, to finalise the technical specifications for the new passport standards. The ICAO has already settled on facial recognition as the standard biometrics identifier, though countries may add fingerprints or iris scans if they wish. The standards body will vote on whether to adopt radio-frequency ID chips, such as those used in Fast Pass toll systems, as the standard method of storing and transmitting the digitised information.
Look Before You Leap
An international coalition of privacy groups, ranging from the American Civil Liberties Union to the Swiss Internet User Group, sent an open letter (PDF) to the ICAO, asking the group to impose strict rules on the collection and sharing of data and to hold off on a specification until privacy concerns are fully evaluated.
"We are concerned that the ICAO is setting a surveillance standard for the rest of the world to follow," the letter said. "In this sense, the ICAO is setting domestic policy, implementing profiling and ID cards where previously none may have existed, or enhancing ID documentation through the use of biometrics, and increasing the data pouring into national databases, or creating them where required."
Simon Davies, director of human rights group Privacy International, said the ICAO hasn't consulted with human rights groups and shouldn't be involved at all. "The most troubling aspect of international standard setting is that it often occurs without any national dialogue through the diplomatic process," Davies said. "Governments merely use the standards bodies as a convenient means of implementing controversial policy."
Avoiding The Central Database
Privacy International suggested that the ICAO should have adopted a standard that would allow computers at a border to match the traveller to the digital photo on a passport, but that did not permit any government to keep a central database of photos. The group argued that facial recognition is not the most accurate identification benchmark, and that matching a person to an old photograph is problematic.
The group also said that the choice of controversial radio-frequency chips to house up to 32,000 characters of digitised information allows unscrupulous officials or rogue operators to read a passport secretly, even when stored away in a traveller's backpack. A better choice, according to travel privacy advocate Edward Hasbrouck, would have been an enhanced bar code, which can only be read with an optical scanner such as those used at supermarkets.
The ICAO didn't immediately respond to an e-mail request for comments. The U.S. government, however, is eager for the group to finish the process. Congress passed two laws after Sept. 11, 2001, that require countries in the Visa Waiver Program to issue biometrics, machine-readable passports by Oct. 26, 2004.
After that deadline, visitors from those countries (which include European Union countries and Singapore) that do not have the new passports will have to get a visa from consular offices overseas.
Secretary of State Colin Powell and Department of Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge have told Congress no country will meet that deadline, and that Congress needs to extend the deadline to the end of 2006, according to a letter sent to the House Judiciary Committee on March 17.
Powell and Ridge threatened "grave consequences" if the deadline were not extended.
"The Department of State expects to have to process an additional 5 million visas next year alone, if the deadline is not extended, assuming the need to acquire a visa does not suppress demand for travel to the United States," they wrote. "In the latter scenario, it is important to note that the U.S. economy would likely suffer gravely if travellers 'vote with their feet' and go elsewhere, possibly resulting in multi-billion-dollar losses to the U.S. economy."
U.S. Biometrics Passport In Pipeline
Though Congress hasn't mandated that U.S. passports contain biometrics, the State Department, along with other federal agencies, plans to begin a pilot program by the end of the year and hopes to begin issuing only biometrics passports by 2005, according to Lou Fintor, a State Department spokesman.
Barry Steinhardt, director of the ACLU's technology and liberty program, warned that such a biometrics passport would soon become ubiquitous in the daily lives of Americans.
"In Europe, it has already morphed into more than a passport, and countries are considering using it as a national ID card," Steinhardt said. "This incredibly rich document will overtake the driver's license as the preferred form of identification."