February 14, 2005 4:00 AM PST

National ID cards on the way?

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to require that passports and other travel documents be outfitted with biometrics and remotely readable RFID-type "contact-less integrated circuits."

The ICAO, a United Nations organization, argues the measures are necessary to reduce fraud, combat terrorism and improve airline security. But its critics have raised questions about how the technology could be misused by identity thieves with RFID readers, and they say it would "promote irresponsible national behavior."

In the United States, the federal government is planning to embed RFID chips in all U.S. passports and some foreign visitor's documents. The U.S. State Department is now evaluating so-called e-passport technology from eight different companies. The agency plans to select a supplier and issue the first e-passports this spring, starting in Los Angeles, and predicts that all U.S. passport agencies will be issuing them within a year.

The high-tech passports are supposed to deter theft and forgeries, as well as accelerate immigration checks at airports and borders. They'll contain within their covers a miniscule microchip that stores basic data, including the passport holder's name, date of birth and place of birth. The chip, which can transmit information through a tiny included antenna, also has enough room to store biometric data such as digitized fingerprints, photographs and iris scans.

Border officials can compare the information on the chip to that on the rest of the passport and to the person actually carrying it. Discrepancies could signal foul play.

In a separate program, the Department of Homeland Security plans to issue RFID devices to foreign visitors that enter the country at the Mexican and Canadian borders. The agency plans to start a yearlong test of the technology in July at checkpoints in Arizona, New York and Washington state.

The idea is to aid immigration officials in tracking visitors' arrivals and departures and snare those who overstay their visas. Similar to e-passports, the new system should speed up inspection procedures. It's part of the US-VISIT program, a federal initiative designed to capture and share data such as fingerprints and photographs of foreign visitors.

A "Trojan horse"
The legislation approved by the House last Thursday follows a related measure President Bush signed into law in December. That law gives the Transportation Department two years to devise standard rules for state licenses, requires information to be stored in "machine-readable" format, and says noncompliant ID cards won't be accepted by federal agencies.

But critics fret that the new bill goes even further. It shifts authority to

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