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 US border checkpoints. Yet significant questions loom about whether the US 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, 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 travelers next year, US 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 endeavors, 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. "That kind of slows things down."