Biometric technology that scans faces, fingerprints or other physical characteristics to confirm people's identities is about to get its biggest, most public test: at U.S. border checkpoints.
Yet significant questions loom about whether the U.S. and foreign governments can meet an Oct. 26, 2004, deadline set by Congress for upgrading passports and visas to include biometrics.
"This is the mother of all projects - there's no question about it," said Joseph Atick, chief of Identix Corp., a maker of biometric systems.
With fingerprint and face scanners due to be in place at air and sea ports by the end of this year and biometric visas and passports beginning to get into the hands of travellers next year, U.S. officials hope to keep the wrong people out while letting the right people in without delay.
Biometric visas and passports, certainly, will be harder to fake. The challenge will be to equip the millions who will need the new documents in order to enter the United States, and to upgrade computer systems at border crossings.
These are complicated endeavours, and will cost billions.
"We're doing it at a time when money is not exactly overflowing," said Bernard Bailey, head of face-recognition biometrics maker Viisage Inc. "That kind of slows things down."
Biometric systems reduce patterns in a person's fingerprints, irises, faces, voices or other characteristics to mathematical algorithms that can be stored on a chip or machine-readable strip.
When arriving travellers put their fingers into biometric scanners or stand in front of face-recognition cameras, a computer will check whether the patterns it detects match the ones the subjects gave when they were first scanned. The system also will check whether visitors appear on watch lists of suspected terrorists or immigration violators.
The technology has been used for years to secure sensitive corporate and government facilities, and to help state motor-vehicle departments keep people from getting multiple licences. Mexico maintains 60 million face-recognition files to prevent people from registering to vote more than once.
After Sept. 11, 2001, interest surged in biometrics as a security tool. Last year, Congress mandated that biometrics be added to a new automated entry and exit system for travellers known as U.S.-VISIT. And it set several deadlines.
The Department of Homeland Security expects to begin taking fingerprints and digital pictures of incoming travellers at air and sea ports in January. The biometric identifiers will be added to the bevy of data the government maintains about international travellers.
Biometric scans at land borders with Mexico and Canada - which handle 80 per cent of America's 440 million annual immigration inspections - are due to begin in 2005. All points of entry should have the technology by the end of that year, said Homeland Security spokeswoman Kimberly Weissman.
But perhaps the most daunting deadline is Oct. 26, 2004. All foreigners with visas or passports issued after that date will have to carry biometric identifiers in those documents if they want to enter the United States.
That could complicate life for the 210 U.S. embassies and consulates around the world, which will have to add a biometrics-enabled chip or strip to visas they give to people coming to the country.
As of now, 37 per cent of visa applicants have their visas processed by mail if they meet certain criteria.
But unless other arrangements are made, all applicants will have to go to their nearest embassy or consulate to have their fingerprints scanned or their facial image captured by a biometrics-enabled camera, potentially swamping already taxed offices.
Such complexities are partly why the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, estimated last year that adding biometrics to visas would cost $1.4 billion US to $2.9 billion initially, then $700 million to $1.5 billion annually.
State Department spokesman Stuart Patt acknowledged that biometric visas will present logistical challenges. But he said the department has learned well from its experience dispensing six million visa cards with fingerprint biometrics, made by Drexler Technology Corp., to Mexicans since 1998.
A report prepared this year for the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy was less upbeat.
Without "substantial reductions in visa applications," forcing everyone to apply in person "may compromise staff safety" and present hardships for travellers, said the report, written by the International Biometrics Group, a consulting firm.
The deadline could also vex many of the 27 countries whose citizens don't need visas to travel to the United States. The U.S. rule means those nations must add biometrics to passports they issue after Oct. 26, 2004 - or their citizens will start having to get visas.
Those countries can use whatever kind of biometrics they want, but at a minimum, facial recognition should be included. That decision was made in May by the International Civil Aviation Organization, a Montreal-based United Nations agency that sets travel standards.
But adding the technology to passports is no easy feat. The ICAO has not set detailed technical specifications. The European Union has yet to resolve biometric standards for its member countries, though a meeting on the subject is expected by October.
And the United States itself likely will not be done upgrading its own new passports by Oct. 26, 2004, Patt said.
At least one country in the U.S. visa waiver program, Australia, has already experimented with biometrics and expects to have no problem meeting the U.S. deadline.
However, other nations report far less progress.
Agnes Von Der Muhll, a spokeswoman in the French Embassy in Washington, said the October 2004 deadline presents "a challenge."
"It's not so much time to proceed," she said. "We will try our best to meet the deadline."
German officials in Washington and Berlin said it was their understanding that no final decisions had been reached on biometrics by the United States or the International Civil Aviation Organization.
Canadian officials say they are working with U.S. authorities to ensure that the border remains secure while allowing the critical flow of goods and people. High-tech clearance systems for commercial trucks and frequent travellers are gradually being adopted at certain border points, but no comprehensive system for all visitors has been announced.
"There's a lot of confusion," said Trevor Prout, marketing director for the International Biometric Group, which plans a conference on the subject in London in September. "No one is entirely clear on what is supposed to happen and which things are carved into stone or which things are apt to change or slide."
Some people familiar with the situation say U.S. officials might try to work out special agreements with countries that can't comply in time.
"The diplomacy challenge is enormous," said Dennis Carlton, director of Washington operations for the International Biometric Group.
For example, Britain does not plan to add face-recognition chips to passports until mid-2005. Until those documents are in use, British citizens with passports issued after Oct. 26, 2004, will need visas to visit the United States.
Consequently, British and American officials are discussing several options, including "extending the deadline," according to a spokesman for the Home Office in London who spoke on customary condition of anonymity.
Indeed, a report written in January by the departments of State and Justice and the National Institute of Standards and Technology predicted that Congress will have to push back its biometric deadlines by at least one year because of the "size and intricacy of what needs to be implemented."