When conversation turns to the topic of biometrics, of late the initials ICAO are frequently a part of the discussion. ICAO stands for “International Civil Aviation Organization” and has been around since the 1920s. It is a United Nations chartered body responsible for the establishment of standards for international travel documents.
Today, the group is actively working redefining the travel document to take advantage of recent advancements in identification technologies. Chief among these new technologies: biometrics and contactless ID technology. Because of the global reach of the group’s recommendations, any ICAO recommendation ripples into countless other areas and applications.
The United States government announced its US-VISIT (United States Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology) initiative earlier this year, requiring countries that enjoy visa waiver status to strengthen their citizen’s passports with additional anti-fraud and authentication technologies. Specifically, US-VISIT mandates the ICAO-recommended solution of a facial biometric stored on an ISO 14443 contactless chip. The current date for countries to comply is October 26, 2004. After that date countries not in compliance will lose their visa waiver status and citizens wishing to travel to the U.S. would be required to apply for and obtain a travel visa.
ICAO works closely with ISO, the International Organization for Standards. In fact, ICAO is actually the customer for ISO’s primary biometric standards group known as WG3. WG3 is formally titled ISO JTC1/SC17/WG3. It was established to create or identify specifications to meet the needs and solve the problems presented to it by ICAO. WG3 builds draft specs under the name ICAO 9303 that are evaluated and approved or modified by ICAO.
According to Chuck Baggeroer, representative of Datacard Group and member of WG3, “long before September 11, ICAO recognized the need to improve and standardize travel documents and the certification authority/process at issuance.”
So how did ICAO and WG3 arrive at the solution of a facial biometric stored on a 14443 chip? In the beginning of their process, the suitability of available technologies was questionable. According to Mr. Baggeroer, they evaluated magnetic stripes, barcodes, optical stripes, contact chips, and contactless chips. At the outset, contactless chips did not have enough capacity to meet the group’s data requirements. “We needed a minimum of 8k for the interoperable biometric alone.” But as the process continued, capabilities increased from 8k to 16k, then 16k to 32k.
The group considered a number of different biometrics as well. Facial, fingerprint, iris, and others were evaluated. The facial indicator was selected because of its universal cultural acceptability. Fingerprints were considered by some countries to be too privacy- intrusive and iris scans brought patent issues.
The ICAO specifications also include a digitized image of the individual’s signature, the ability to include a number of data sets, and the provision for an optional secondary biometric (e.g. a fingerprint).
Singapore has requested a decision from ICAO and USVISIT officials on the use of a standard credit card-sized contactless ID as a passport. Others are apparently considering the issuance of a card for those who do not require passport stamps in their travels.
Regardless of the form factor (card or embedded chip), the ICAO recommendation and the USVISIT program are a major victory for contactless and biometric technologies. And, as Mr. Baggeroer points out, the potential 385 million contactless smart cards coming online are certain to be a boost for IC chip providers.
The October 2004 deadline is by all accounts very aggressive, and industry insiders have openly questioned the likelihood that it will be met. In the meantime countries and vendors are working feverishly to reach a milestone that, regardless of the final date, will unquestionably launch a global trend of secure credentialing.
Editors note: Please watch for the January launch of SecureIDNews, a sister-publication to ContactlessNews that will regularly feature critical information pertaining to secure ID and credentialing, including constant updates on the deployment of smart passports and other travel documents. For more information please visit www.SecureID News.com.