U.S. to Issue RFID-enabled Passports

The State Department is on track to start issuing passports containing radio frequency identification (RFID) chips this week, despite warnings from some security experts that such systems could be accessed or tracked by hackers.

The new program will start in the Denver passport office and be in full production through the agency's 17 passport facilities across the country by mid-2007. All U.S. passports are expected to include RFID chips containing personal biometric information by 2017.

Congress passed legislation in 2002 to add security to the Visa Waiver program, and in 2005 the U.S. Department of Homeland Security required that passports include digital photos and conform to international electronic passport standards. The State Department set the August deadline.

State Department personnel successfully beta-tested the electronic passports over the past year, said Frank Moss, deputy assistant secretary for passport services.

Moss contended that electronic passports improve security by making it harder to forge or alter such documents. All personal information on a chip must precisely match that in the printed portion of the electronic passport.

In addition, if an electronic passport is stolen, the chip has a unique identifying number that can be tracked by law enforcement agencies worldwide, Moss said.

He noted that extra memory space on the RFID chip may be used in the future to store biometric information such as fingerprint images. However, he said, no decision has been made yet on how to use the extra space.

Some security experts expressed concern over the use of a so-called contactless chip, which doesn't require contact with a scanner. The new passport's RFID chip can be read by a scanner, but it must be within 4 inches of the device, Moss said.

Given the fast pace of technology changes, and the 10-year life of a passport, it's inevitable that the RFID chip will become hackable and that technology will be built to access it from long distances, said Bruce Schneier, chief technology officer at Counterpane Internet Security Inc. in Mountain View, Calif.

Schneier contended that the State Department could have used an RFID chip that required contact with a reader. "I can think of no benefit for a contactless chip," he said. "The question is, If there is no good reason for RFID, why are they pushing so hard for it?"

Other experts downplayed such potential flaws. "The only vaguely legitimate arguments I have heard against e-passports is that they might permit someone 2 feet away from you to learn that you are American and blow you up, or permit someone 2 feet away to learn whatever might be stored on the e-passport," said Michael Shamos, a professor who specializes in security issues at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

"It's a balancing of risks. The e-passport will be much more difficult to forge and thus ought to reduce the prospect of terrorists getting hold of valid ones," he said.

The new passports will also meet specifications set by the Montreal-based International Civil Aviation Organization, a United Nations standards body, and are supported by some 27 other countries.

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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