The US House of Representatives has voted for a year-long extension to the deadline for countries to introduce biometric passports for their citizens. This is a year less than Colin Powell asked for, and many countries (including the UK) will be unable to meet it.
On Tuesday, Maura Harty, Assistant Secretary of State for consular affairs, told the Senate Judiciary committee that the technological challenges involved in introducing biometric features to passports are too great for nations to meet the October 2004 deadline set by Congress in the Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act of 2002.
More than 10 million visitors enter the U.S. every year from members of the visa waiver program, established for nations whose citizens are thought unlikely to pose a security threat or to overstay the 90-day limit. But under the new system envisaged, such visitors would only be allowed in without a visa if they had biometrics on their passports.
Harty argued that manufacturers have only just begun to make the necessary chips, and that neither the US nor any other nations, have been able to begin testing. The US plans to have biometrics passports by the end of 2005, but technical standards are still being developed for both the biometrics, and the machines that will read them.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Senator Orrin Hatch said that a delay of just one year would be acceptable. He was concerned that borders were still vulnerable, and said it was important that the security be stepped up quickly.
Both Colin Powell, Secretary of State, and Tom Ridge, Department of Homeland Security, have called for a delay of two years, as have many of the so-called visa waiver nations affected by the change in policy. Powell warned that without this delay, US consular services in affected countries would be overwhelmed by a huge surge in visa requests.
The logistics of the programme are not the only aspect attracting criticism. A survey of US businesses earlier this month put the cost to business of increased security since September 11 at over $30bn. The National Foreign Trade Council said that it had complained to government officials about restrictions on business visas, but to no avail.
In January this year, US immigration officials began collecting biometric data - photographs and fingerprints - from everyone entering the country on a visa. As of September, this will be extended to visitors from the 27 Visa Waiver nations, 22 of which are in Europe. The others are Australia, Brunei, Japan, New Zealand and Singapore. ®
We are aware that there is a whole other debate running along side this, which is whether the biometric data will actually make any difference to the security of the borders. None of the hijackers involved in crashing those planes on September 11 was from a waiver country, for instance. The authenticity of the document is also no real indication about the actual identity of the owner of said document. However, these are separate issues, and have been addressed more fully in the articles below.