U.S. moves closer to e-passports

The State Department will begin issuing electronic passports with microchips that store biometric and other data by early next year.

Alorie Gilbert Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Alorie Gilbert
writes about software, spy chips and the high-tech workplace.
Alorie Gilbert
5 min read
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.


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...

to drop to under a dime in a few years. The State Department is mum on the cost of all this new e-passport technology, but it?s been reported that the agency plans to pass the bill on to citizens by raising the price of passports. Get ready to shell out an additional $10 on top of the normal fees, which are $85 for a first adult passport and $55 to renew.

The face of modern technology
E-passport chips also have enough memory to store digital photos, which is where the facial recognition piece comes in. The State Department and the Department of Homeland Security plan to install facial recognition systems at immigration checkpoints in airports and elsewhere in about a year, said Barry Kefauver, a former State Department official who now consults with the agency on the e-passport program. Facial recognition scanners will automatically compare a person?s face to the data about their face stored in the RFID chips, making sure they match, he said.

"The administration... wants to be able to identify people in crowds. It wants to surreptitiously pick out the Americans, and pick out the foreigners."
--Bruce Schneier, founder, Counterpane Internet Security

The State Department may eventually incorporate fingerprints and iris scan information for extra measure. But that's further off because it would require fingerprinting the general public, something that may not go down too well with people because of the criminal taint of being fingerprinted, Kefauver said.

But facial recognition technology is a relatively new and somewhat unreliable. The British government postponed testing biometric identification cards with 10,000 people earlier this year after it ran into glitches with its iris-scanning and facial recognition equipment.

In addition, privacy advocates are concerned that the chips, which can be read remotely through clothing and purses at a debatable distance, could subject passport holders to spying, theft and other unsavory activities. The American Civil Liberties Union, Privacy International in London and a couple dozen other organizations have petitioned the United Nations to reign in its members' e-passport plans and beef up privacy protections.

Seeds of distrust
Some well-regarded security experts even imagine sinister motives behind the push toward e-passports. Bruce Schneier, author and founder of Counterpane Internet Security, writes in his Web log that the government should abandon the RFID mechanism altogether in favor of a chip that requires direct contact with its scanner.

"If there were a good offsetting reason to choose (RFID) technology over a contact chip, then the choice might make sense," Schneier said in his blog.

"Unfortunately, there is only one possible reason: The administration wants surreptitious access themselves," he continued. "It wants to be able to identify people in crowds. It wants to surreptitiously pick out the Americans, and pick out the foreigners. It wants to do the very thing that it insists, despite demonstrations to the contrary, can't be done."

The era when e-passports are widespread is still some years away. Passports are valid for 10 years, so it will take a long time for a majority of the population to replace the ordinary passports they have today.