October 25, 2004 12:00 PM PDT
U.S. moves closer to e-passports
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"E-passports"--also dubbed "smart passports"--promise to deter passport theft and forgeries, as well as speed up immigration checks at airports and borders. Dozens of countries are adopting them at the behest of the U.S. government, which has been on a mission to beef up border controls since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The United States will also soon begin guarding its borders using the same technology. The State Department recently asked four technology companies to draw up proposals for introducing e-passports to the public. The agency plans to select one of them and begin issuing the new passports to government officials by the end of the year.
The government wants to put radio tags into passports. The chips would hold biometric data and other security enhancements.
Privacy advocates are suspicious--they fear heightened opportunities for ID theft and potential misuse of the chips by the government.
If all goes as planned, the agency will begin issuing them to ordinary citizens by next spring, starting with people renewing or seeking new passports through the Los Angeles Passport Agency. The State Department plans to produce more than 1 million e-passports by the end of 2005 and, by 2006, it expects all new passports to feature the special microchips, according to Angela Aggeler, a spokeswoman for the agency?s Bureau of Consular Affairs.
"A U.S. passport is one of the most valuable documents in the world," Aggeler said. "The harder we make it for someone to fake a passport or travel as an imposter on a U.S. passport, the better off and safer we all are."
E-passports incorporate a special microchip that stores basic data, including the passport holder?s name, date of birth and place of birth. The chip, smaller than the width of a human hair and holding only 64K of memory, also has enough room to store biometric data, including digital fingerprints, photos and iris scans, said Saswato Das, a spokesman for Infineon Technologies, a German microchip company that is one of the four competitors for the State Department contract.
The chips, known as radio frequency identification (RFID) chips, are similar to the ones used to track livestock, identify lost pets and speed toll payments though E-Z Pass systems. Wal-Mart Stores and other major retailers are beginning to use them on merchandise, and the Food and Drug Administration just gave hospitals the okay to inject them into their patients.
The RFID chips that will go into passports are a little fancier, though. They?re extra-durable, designed to last 10 years. They incorporate digital signature and encryption technology. Infineon has built 50 security mechanisms into its chips, Das said.
They?re more expensive, too. Regular RFID chips are less than $1 apiece today and are expected...
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