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New hi-tech passport to aid transport | (KRT) - A technology few people heard of until recently is becoming the first line of defense in the war on terror.

This fall, the State Department is rolling out new passports that will use biometric technology to guarantee the person holding one is who he's supposed to be.

Embedded with computer chips that hold a traveler's digitized photo and fingerprints, the new passports will be scanned by customs agents at an airport or border crossing, popping up a photo on a screen.

At the same time, the traveler will touch an inkless scanner to make sure the fingerprints match the ones in the chip.

The technology was once dismissed as futuristic, too expensive and an unnecessary invasion of privacy. But that changed with Sept. 11, 2001.

And last week, the federal Sept. 11 commission's report on the attacks focused on broadening the use of biometrics to protect the nation.

"As standards spread, this necessary and ambitious effort could dramatically strengthen the world's ability to intercept individuals who could pose catastrophic threats," the report said.

It urged the quick completion of a "biometric entry-exit screening system."

"This will definitely lead to greater interest and a better understanding of the technology," said Christine Barry, a New York-based analyst who tracks the biometrics industry for Celent Communications.

Lawmakers want the technology expanded to include ID cards for airport workers and drivers of hazardous material.

Barry predicted revenues from the expanding world of biometrics will approach $800 million this year. Already, more than 200 companies offer a version of the inkless fingerprint scanner, the most popular of the biometric devices.

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Scanners that once cost more than $1,000 can be had for $100. The price of facial recognition devices, which gauge the unique characteristics of faces, has dipped as well.

The high-tech chips in the new passports may eventually be tweaked to include information gleaned from iris or retina scans, technology considered foolproof but costly.

Only those applying for new passports will get the chip. Others would have the chip added when their passports expire.

Much of the technology already is in use in 115 of the nation's airports - including New York's Kennedy - and 14 seaports, under a program called US-VISIT.

Upon entry, travelers from countries whose citizens need visas to enter the U.S. already have their photographs taken and their left and right index fingers scanned to be matched against their visa, as well as criminal databases and terrorist watch lists.

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© 2004, New York Daily News Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services