A whole new (biometrics) world

Security initiatives by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) could open up new avenues for the deployment of biometric technologies across the globe.

Montreal-based ICAO, which sets guidelines and standards for passports and travel documents worldwide, is pushing for its 189 member countries to adopt machine-readable, electronic passports by 2010.

Biometrics is the scientific measurement of an individual’s physical attributes and focuses on either facial features, voice, fingerprints or eyes.

Officially, ICAO advocates implementation of a biometric element in all new passports, but will not enforce this recommendation. Travel documents will be embedded with a contact-less electronic chip that enables at least facial recognition.

“ICAO recommends facial recognition in the electronic passports, with the option of secondary biometric functions: fingerprinting and eye scanning. But any country has the option whether or not to use biometrics,” said Denis Chagnon, ICAO spokesperson.

Passport Canada has strongly denied reports that this country’s new e-passports will contain a biometric element. As well, the contact-less chip will not use radio frequency identification (RFID) technology to communicate with the e-passport reader.

“Biometrics is undergoing a real transition,” said Joel Shaw, chief strategy officer for Ottawa-based CryptoMetrics Canada, a subsidiary of CryptoMetrics, Inc. “We’re going to see large-scale application in the public domain as countries begin the transition to e-passports.”

ICAO will be hosting a symposium on machine-readable travel documents and biometric enhancement at its headquarters on September 29 and 30. According to Chagnon, the 27 U.S. visa waiver countries have agreed to adopt the new e-passports before the end of October 2006 and 25 European Union nations will implement e-passports by next September.

Passport Canada, a special operating agency of Foreign Affairs Canada, confirmed plans were underway for a pilot project to implement e-passports next year.

“The project is still in a very early developmental phase,” said Lynn Brunette, media relations officer at Passport Canada.

She said while the details had not yet been finalised, the aim was to embed an electronic chip in the passport containing information already in the passport, such as name, date of birth, place of issue, as well as a digitized jpeg photo of the bearer.

“But there will be no biometric element in the e-passport. The documents will be machine-readable to comply with ICAO standards. The chip will not use RFID technology, not RFID as we know it. The contact-less chip is readable only in close proximity to the scanner, 10 centimetres or even less.”

Passport Canada was exploring facial recognition, said Brunette. Facial recognition biometrics deploys accurate cameras to scan the face, using algorithmic (mathematical) formulae to measure dozens of points, in pixels, between facial features.

Carmi Levy, senior research analyst InfoTech in London, Ont., said the move to e-passports was a sign the Canadian government was making an effort to curb fraud and strengthen security. However, Levy cautioned against privacy concerns that he called serious.

“Canada is infamous for having passports that are easily copied. There are many examples over the past three or four years of counterfeit Canadian passports,” said Levy. “Biometrics, especially an optical or fingerprint scan, will inherently make the passports more secure.

“But with contact-less technology, information in our passports will be logged into the system and placed on a network. And that raises serious privacy concerns for third-party access to our private and confidential information.

“RFID technology also poses threats to privacy. Anyone with a reader can walk by, scan your information, and then use it for less professional or even criminal purposes,” said Levy.

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