Last weekend, government sources told The Washington Post that a South African woman was under investigation for possible terrorist connections after she apparently walked or swam across the Mexico-U.S. border last month. The South African passport she presented to authorities at McAllen-Miller International Airport in Texas appeared to have been altered, the sources said, leading to her detention.
The State Department settled on face recognition as the biometric to comply with specifications set by the International Civil Aviation Organization, a Montreal-based standards agency affiliated with the United Nations.
In seeking to have countries use one common biometric to aid anti-terrorism efforts, the international group designated face recognition two years ago in part because it would be easiest for most countries to implement and it was deemed the least likely to raise privacy concerns.
"Facial photographs do not disclose information that the person does not routinely disclose to the general public," the group said in a final technical report issued in May. "The photograph . . . is already socially and culturally accepted internationally."
But while the agency set face recognition as a standard, it said countries could add one or two other approved biometrics: fingerprints and scans of the eye's iris. Several European countries are considering adding fingerprints to their passports.
With expiration dates varying among U.S. citizens, it will take years for the new system to affect everyone who holds a passport. Critics ask why the department is not adding fingerprints now -- even if they are not immediately used -- rather than starting over again later.
"The biometric that makes most sense is the fingerprint with proper privacy and security guidelines," said Ari Schwartz, associate director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, a think-tank on digital policy issues. "By not taking this opportunity today, the State Department is really missing out."
Frank E. Moss, deputy assistant secretary of state for passport services, emphasized the importance of having a global standard for identity verification. The U.S. government will consider adding biometrics in the future, Moss said, but he added that several countries expressed privacy concerns over the use of fingerprints.
Moss said adding fingerprinting stations at passport application offices would be a serious logistical burden, with roughly 8 million new or replacement passports issued each year.
Moss said the State Department will not take new digital photos. Instead, applicants for new or replacement passports will submit photos as they do now, and the department will digitize them.