EU Needs More Time for Biometric Passports

Posted on March 30th, 2005

BRUSSELS, Belgium (AP) – The European Union on Wednesday told the U.S. Congress the bloc needed another year to implement new U.S. rules on secure biometric passports, which include a computer chip with data such as a digital photo of the passport holder.

EU justice and interior ministers had said last year they would meet this year’s Oct. 26 deadline. But only six of the 25 EU countries – Belgium, Finland, Luxembourg, Germany, Austria, and Sweden – will be ready to issue biometric passports by that date.

After Oct. 26, citizens from 27 visa-exempt countries will have to apply for a visa or have a biometric passport.

The EU’s Justice and Home Affairs Commissioner Franco Frattini wrote on Wednesday to James Sensenbrenner, head of the U.S. House of Representative’s Judiciary Committee that although the bloc had made substantial progress, it would require more time, until Aug. 28, 2006, to introduce the new passports.

‘Despite all the progress … we would urge the Congress to consider a second extension of the deadline,’ Frattini said in the letter. The United States had already extended the original Oct. 26, 2004, deadline by a year.

Frattini said the issuing of similar U.S. passports was also experiencing ‘a certain slippage’ due to problems in adapting the new technology to passports. Japan also will be unable to meet the U.S. deadline, officials said.

So-called biometric features can reduce patterns of fingerprints, irises, voices and faces to mathematical algorithms that can be stored on a chip or machine-readable strip. EU countries also want to include a fingerprint on the chip.

‘Despite all the progress made … in reinforcing the security of passports you are surely aware that critical aspects of the biometric technology, such as data security and interoperability of reading devices, are still being finalized,’ wrote Frattini.

Frattini said the EU ‘shares the view of the United States that more secure travel documents are an important tool in the fight against international crime and terrorism.’

The United States is urging European countries to have new biometric travel documents in place as part of its tighter border security checks following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

All new U.S. passports issued by the end of 2005 are expected to have a chip containing the holders’ name, birth date and issuing office, as well as a a photo of the holders’ face. The photo is the international standard for biometrics, but countries are free to add other biometrics, such as fingerprints, for greater accuracy.

Also Wednesday, the EU head office released a report on the impact of using biometrics, which said more large-scale field trials were needed to ensure the new technology worked properly. It also urged governments to ensure safeguards for privacy and data protection in the use of biometric data.

By Jenna Payne (Excite)