RFID passports take off

Despite security and privacy concerns, all but three of the countries required by the U.S. to issue passports with radio tags are doing so.

Joris Evers Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Joris Evers covers security.
Joris Evers
3 min read
Despite security and privacy concerns, all but three of the countries required by the U.S. to issue passports with radio tags are now doing so, the Department of Homeland Security said Thursday.

Except for Andorra, Brunei and Liechtenstein, all of the 27 countries whose citizens can travel to the U.S. without a visa are now issuing "e-Passports," the department said in a statement. The passports include a radio frequency identification, or RFID, chip with the holder's information and a biometric identifier, such as a digital photograph.

The new passports are designed to be harder to forge and to identify the bearer more securely. "The upgrade to e-Passports is a significant advance in preventing terrorists from using lost or stolen passports to obtain entry into the United States," DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff said in the statement.

The U.S. government has pushed for the electronic passport for the past two years and recently started producing them itself. The deadline for all the countries in the Visa Waiver Program to start issuing passports with RFID chips was Oct. 26.

RFID tags are being included in passports despite concerns about the holder's privacy and security . At worst, the chips could let terrorists identify bearers from a distance, which means they could be used as a trigger for explosives, experts have said.

The take-up of the electronic passports is bad news for privacy, said Bruce Schneier, chief technology officer of Counterpane Internet Security. "The risk in RFID passports is surreptitious access, and the security measures different countries are taking are varied in their scope and effectiveness," he said.

For protection, holders of an electronic passport should guard it well, Schneier suggested. "If you're stuck with one of these passports, use a photocopy whenever you can and keep the real one wrapped in tin foil," he said.

The U.S. government has repeatedly dismissed the security and privacy concerns. The passports "have critical security features which prevent the unauthorized reading?of data stored on the chip," the Department of Homeland Security said Thursday.

In July 2005, the U.S. government announced that passports issued by Visa Waiver Program countries on or after Oct. 26, 2006, must be e-Passports to be valid for entry into the U.S. without a visa. Passports issued before that date must be machine-readable with a digital photograph, or a machine-readable passport issued before Oct. 26, 2005.

Travelers holding passports from Andorra, Brunei or Liechtenstein will need a visa to enter the U.S. if they hold a passport issued on or after Oct. 26, 2006. That requirement will persist until e-Passports are available in those countries, the Department of Homeland Security said.

The 27 countries participating in the Visa Waiver Program include: Andorra, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brunei, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Monaco, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, San Marino, Singapore, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the U.K.

The Visa Waiver Program applies to citizens of these countries traveling to the United States for 90 days or less. Approximately 15 million people each year enter the country under the program, the U.S. government said.