New US Passport ID Technology Has High Error Rate

Richard Forno rforno at
Fri Aug 6 08:22:46 PDT 2004

Here is yet another example of security theater (the illusion of
or enhanced security) being pursued as a matter of national security --
this case, an unbelievable 50% error rate in the security technology
implemented is deemed acceptable enough by the US government to track


Passport ID Technology Has High Error Rate

By Jonathan Krim
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 6, 2004; Page A01

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
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
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
be compared with an image of the traveler taken at the passport control
station, and also matched against photos of people on government watch

The department chose face recognition to be consistent with standards
adopted by other nations, officials said. Those who drafted the
reasoned that travelers are accustomed to submitting photographs and
find giving fingerprints to be intrusive.

But federal researchers who have tested face-recognition technology say
error rate is unacceptably high -- up to 50 percent if photographs are
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.

< snip >

The concerns come at a time of heightened terrorism alerts and urgent
for changes in national security from the commission investigating the
11, 2001, attacks. Among its many recommendations were quick adoption of
biometric passports and more secure drivers' licenses, though the
did not specify which type of data should be used.

< snip >

"Facial recognition isn't going to do it for us at large scale," Wayman
said. "If there's a 10 percent error rate with 300 people on a 747,
that's a

According to tests by the National Institute for Standards and
two fingerprints provide an accuracy rate of 99.6 percent. With face
recognition, if the pictures are taken under controlled circumstances
proper illumination, angles and facial expression, the accuracy rate
was 90

< snip >

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