State Department Begins Switch to RFID Passports

Government employees will be the first to have chip-enabled documents, with general distribution scheduled for October 2006.

The good news for Americans traveling overseas with a required RFID-outfitted passport beginning next year is that there will be no fee to replace the document if the chip fails. The bad news is that technology glitches provide one more opportunity to get stuck at the border.

Only 1 percent of the public responding earlier this year to the governments proposed rule to equip U.S. passports with required RFID chips supported the idea, but the Department of State finalized the rule this week nonetheless.

"In order to protect the security of U.S. borders, it is essential that the Department implement the electronic passport program as soon as possible," the agency wrote in the final rules published Tuesday in the Federal Register. "In addition, a prompt launch of the program will increase our credibility and good will with other countries, which are implementing similar biometric passport programs."

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In December, the State Department plans to begin implementing the electronic passport program with a pilot test of government employees who use official passports for work. Early next year, it will begin issuing the electronic ID to citizens generally, and by October 2006, all U.S. passports, except emergency documents issued by U.S. embassies, will be outfitted with RFID.

The electronic passport will follow standards set by the International Civil Aviation Organization, which prescribes the use of chips and Public Key Infrastructure to protect the data, the department said. The chip will contain the name, nationality, sex, date of birth, place of birth, and digitized photograph of the holder, as well as the passport number, issue date, expiration date, and type.

Only electronic readers within inches of the chip will be able to read the data, according to the published rules. An anti-skimming material will be included in the cover and spine to diminish the threat of skimming the data from a distance farther than 10 centimeters.

To leave open the possibility of adding other biometric data, such as fingerprints or iris scans, in the future, passports will contain a 64KB chip with plenty of storage capacity. However, the department issued an assurance that before requiring any such additional data, it will give the public an opportunity to comment.

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