02 Nov Passports to contain RFID chips next year
International travelers will find a new accessory among their standard travel gear starting in late 2006: an RFID-equipped passport.
The new passports, mandated by State Department regulations, will feature a 64 KB chip containing a duplicate of the information featured on the passport’s physical page, which the government hopes will strengthen national security.
“The electronic passport is a more secure document than the passport we currently have,” said Bureau of Consular Affairs spokesperson Laura Tischler. “It provides one additional way to verify that the person who’s presenting this passport at a port of entry is the person represented on the passport.”
The passport technology is not without its detractors, however. Among them is the American Civil Liberties Union, who believe that the addition of a radio beacon to a passport could leave travelers more open to identity theft or loss of privacy.
“We think that it’s a bad idea,” said Jay Stanley, communications director for the ACLU’s Technology and Liberty Program. “It’s an unnecessary, potentially intrusive technology.”
The government did seek comments from the private sector throughout the past spring, according to Tischler, and has made concessions to privacy concerns. Among them, passports will only feature passive electronics chips, not the active kind that could transmit without being close to a dedicated reader. Additionally, access control practices will be put in place to keep a chip decrypted until a reader also scans a barcode on the physical passport to unlock the coding. Finally, passport booklets will now have a metallic layer to block any signal to a closed booklet, thwarting potential identity thieves.
But such perceived security could be self-defeating, according to Stanley. “It may not be that the passport is only open deep inside the airport at the immigration counter. It may be open at hotel counters and many other places around cities, especially if these passports are perceived as more secure,” he said.
He’s also worried that the chips, like any encryption method or anti-counterfeiting technology, will eventually be cracked by determined forgers, leaving individuals no more secure while still having lost a measure of privacy.
Meanwhile, Daniel van der Weide, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at UW-Madison, thinks the new security features offer clear advantages over current technologies used in passports.
“Anything’s possible, but it really raises the bar. It’s no longer going to be in the province of people with fancy color printers,” van der Weide said. “You’re going to need access to semiconductor manufacturing and alteration technology. You could make a counterfeit chip, but it would involve a huge capital investment.”
See previous WTN coverage on RFID:
• RFID expert says piecemeal approach won’t work
• UW-Madison RFID technology lab debuts Friday