Digital Passports Land in U.S.

Critics worry that the appearance of RFID chips in passports may compromise privacy.

WASHINGTON—American travelers have begun receiving a new RFID-equipped electronic passport in mid-August, according to an announcement from the U.S. Department of State.

Right now, the only people receiving the new passports, which are embedded with an RFID chip that contains full passport information, including the photo, are only going to people served by the Passport Agency in Aurora, Colo.

A State Department spokesperson told eWEEK that the department plans to issue tourist e-passports at all of its domestic passport agencies by the end of 2006.

According to spokesperson Justin Higgins, the State Department had two primary reasons for moving to digital passports.

"The first is security and the second is convenience of travel," Higgins said.

"The Congress mandated that countries that are part of the visa waiver program have passports with integrated circuits that can store at least a digital image of the passport photograph for use with face recognition technology," he said.

Higgins said that the new e-passports should make life a little easier for travelers.

"The electronic passport will facilitate travel by allowing automated identity verification, faster immigration inspections, and greater border protection and security," he said.

Higgins also said that the new e-passport adds an important means of verifying that the information contained on the passport is accurate.

"The e-passport provides greater protection against data alteration than the current non-electronic passport by means of a digital signature," Higgins said.

The new digital passports have been redesigned to reduce the chance of being hacked into, or of being accessed by unauthorized people.

/zimages/1/28571.gifClick here to read more about the State Departments switch to RFID passports.

For example, the RFID chip has been redesigned and the covers of the passport are now made of a metalized substance that prevents reading the RFID chip when the cover is closed.

Still, critics worry that the information on the e-passport can be compromised.

"We do have concerns about the fact that it is encased n RFID technology," said Lillie Coney, associate director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

"That information is accessible through RFID technology and could pose problems for those carrying it," she said.

Coney said shes worried that the RFID technology could easily identify American citizens.

"The technology of readers is constantly being perfected," Coney said.

"As the RFID readers get better, it may subject people to vulnerabilities. Its almost like an experiment that people are going to live," she said.

Coney also said that shes worried about the fact that people do not have an option as to whether they should carry such a passport.

"Its not the way we should find out whether these agencies are doing their job," Coney said.

Some diplomats began receiving e-passports earlier this year. Information on the new passports for travelers can be found here.

/zimages/1/28571.gifCheck out eWEEK.coms for the latest security news, reviews and analysis. And for insights on security coverage around the Web, take a look at Security Center Editor Larry Seltzers Weblog.

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...