The State Department is moving ahead with a plan to implant electronic identification chips in U.S. passports that will allow computer matching of facial characteristics, despite warnings that the technology is prone to a high rate of error.
Federal researchers, academics, industry experts and some privacy advocates say the government should instead use more-reliable fingerprints to help thwart potential terrorists.
The enhanced U.S. passports, scheduled to be issued next spring for people obtaining new or renewed passports, will be the first to include what is known as biometric information. Such data, which can be a fingerprint, a picture of parts of eyes or of facial characteristics, is used to verify identity and help prevent forgery.
Under State Department specifications finalized this month for companies to bid on the new system, a chip woven into the cover of the passport would contain a digital photograph of the traveler's face. That photo could then be compared with an image of the traveler taken at the passport control station, and also matched against photos of people on government watch lists.
The department chose face recognition to be consistent with standards being adopted by other nations, officials said. Those who drafted the standards reasoned that travelers are accustomed to submitting photographs and would find giving fingerprints to be intrusive.
But federal researchers who have tested face-recognition technology say its error rate is unacceptably high -- up to 50 percent if photographs are taken without proper lighting. They say the error rate is far lower for fingerprints, which could be added to the chip without violating the international standard.
The new system would differ from U.S. requirements for many foreign travelers, who are fingerprinted when they apply for visas to visit the United States. The visitors then have their fingers scanned when they enter the country to compare against the data on the visa.
Similar requirements are to be imposed for travelers from countries whose citizens do not need visas to come to the United States, who will be fingerprinted when they arrive in the country.
"I don't think there's a debate," said Charles L. Wilson, who supervises biometric testing at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, an arm of the Commerce Department. "Fingerprints are much better."
The concerns come at a time of heightened terrorism alerts and urgent calls for changes in national security from the commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Among its many recommendations were quick adoption of biometric passports and more secure drivers' licenses, though the commission did not specify which type of data should be used.