Partly because of security concerns after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, technologies that identify people by their faces, fingerprints and other body parts will become a standard part of international travel and appear on passports and visas within the next few years, officials say.
Travel documents will soon include computer chips and bar codes that contain body identification information. The changes are being made to meet guidelines set over the last few months by international organizations.
One deadline looms particularly large -- Oct. 26 of next year. In a little more than a year, the US Department of State and immigration bureau must begin issuing visas and other documents with the body-identifying technologies, also known as biometrics, to foreign visitors.
The change is mandated by border security legislation passed by Congress last May. The federal government has started issuing border-crossing cards for Mexican citizens and green cards that display fingerprints and photos.
By the same deadline, the 27 countries whose citizens can travel to the US without visas must begin issuing passports with computer chips containing facial recognition data or lose their special status.
People from those countries with passports issued before the deadline may still travel to the US without visas as long as their governments have begun biometric identification programs.
Privacy advocates expressed dismay at what they see as pressure being applied to Europe.
"Our government has forced on European governments the obligation to adopt biometric identifiers though most in the US still oppose such systems," said Marc Rotenberg, the head of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, an advocacy group.
He predicted, however, that the US would soon adopt those same technologies.
Officials from the State Department said that mandatory use of the biometric identifiers is scheduled to begin in three years. They have announced plans to test US passports with computer chips by Oct. 26 of next year.
At a recent card technology conference, the deputy assistant secretary of state for passport services, Frank Moss, said the department planned to have all new passports containing biometric data by 2006 at an estimated annual cost of US$100 million.
About 55 million US passports are in circulation, and 7 million are issued annually.
"Including the standards and implementing the standards, not only is it more secure for other countries, it's more secure for us," said Kelly Shannon, a spokeswoman for the State Department. "The idea is that it is contingent on reciprocal treatment for United States citizens."
Biometric technologies have been available for years, but their widespread adoption has been held back by concerns about privacy and reliability, along with a lack of uniformity. But within the last two years policies and standards have begun to catch up with the technologies.
The new biometrics technologies are meant to cut down on subjectivity in photo identification. Right now, the border agent must decide if it is really the person in the photo or simply someone who resembles that person.
"They are trying to overcome the gap between your body, the description and my interpretation," said John Torpey, a professor of sociology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver who has studied the history of identity documents.