October 25, 2004 12:00 PM PDT

U.S. moves closer to e-passports

The United States is moving forward with a plan to issue new high-tech passports this year that incorporate facial recognition technology--despite privacy concerns and possible technical problems.

"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.

News.context

What's new:
The government wants to put radio tags into passports. The chips would hold biometric data and other security enhancements.

Bottom line:
Privacy advocates are suspicious--they fear heightened opportunities for ID theft and potential misuse of the chips by the government.

More stories on RFID chips

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 other candidates are BearingPoint, a French company called Axalto and SuperCom, an Israeli firm.

"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."
--Angela Aggeler, Bureau of Consular Affairs, Los Angeles Passport Agency
The chips, which would be embedded in passport covers, can instantly broadcast their data to immigration officials with the right scanning equipment from a distance of a few inches. This allows officials to compare the information on the chip to the rest of the passport and to the person actually carrying it. Discrepancies could signal foul play.

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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RFID in passports = dumb
This is another dumb idea foisted upon U.S. citizens by FedGov. Did anyone at the State Department consider the fact that a terrorist could rig a RFID reader to a bomb? Then, when an American walks through a doorway their passport would trigger the detonation. Just what we need; taxpayer-funded smart weapons for terrorists.
Posted by (6 comments )
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thats so dumb...
you have to get a bomb in there in the first place why bother setting it up to a rfid to explode when you can use conventional means... getting it in is the hard part blowing it up is easy
Posted by volterwd (466 comments )
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Need counter measure right away
It would be a lot easier for the terrorists to find Americans where they are at any moment. They will be able to pick Americans up from a crowd of people, very easy to kidnap them. They can even send a guided missile that seeks out Americans using RFID.

If the government wishes to do this, they must provide some countermeasures like for example a special cover on the passport so that the RFID chip can never be activated and read if the passport is folded or is closed. This will be like requiring an active action on the holder, just like needing you to swipe your card at at ATM machine in order to read it. So this defeat the purpose and convenience of RFID, however, greater is the risk if no such counter measures to remote reading of RFID's are in place. It will truly make the job of terrorists and kidnappers very easy to get an American in other places. The cost of a remote RFID viewer can be more than paid for by kidnapping for ransom any American tourist. It is like the US spending 5 billion dollars of infrastructure only to be defeated by a 5 dollar RFID reader made in China. The terrorists will surely have a field day identifying and killing Americans.
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