Federal rules adopted for electronic U.S. passports

RFID-equipped passports will be issued starting in December

The U.S. State Department has approved new rules that pave the way for the use of RFID-equipped electronic passports beginning in December -- despite concerns about privacy issues raised by the new technology.

The rules went into effect Tuesday and call for the inclusion of several security measures to protect passport holders from data theft, according to the agency. One method will prevent data on the built-in radio frequency identification tag from being "skimmed," or captured from afar by using a special material on the passport cover that blocks the data from being read by unauthorized equipment.

In August, the State Department announced that the electronic passport program will begin in December for government workers who have "official" or "diplomatic" passports, and will be fully rolled out by next October for all U.S. citizens (see "Electronic U.S. passports coming in December").

The use of electronic passports is designed to enhance document and border security and to make identification for international travel easier and more secure for U.S. citizens, the department said.

During a public comment period earlier this year, the agency received 2,335 messages, with more than 2,000 of them from critics concerned about data integrity, data theft and privacy.

Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Washington-based Electronic Privacy Information Center, said the latest rules are an improvement over the State Department's original plans. Rotenberg said the main privacy worry centered around the possibility of RFID tag skimming. "This is improved. It's certainly better than it was earlier this year," he said.

He cautioned that the government could still one day use RFID-equipped passports to track passport holders in various locations -- even when they are not crossing national borders. "With RFID, you create the risk of remote identification, where people don't know their identification information is being collected," Rotenberg said.

The new rules reflect and incorporate those comments by building in safeguards to protect the passport information, according to the State Department. To combat data theft, the passport RFID chip must be held within about four inches of a special reader and the passport cover must be open.

The agency also noted that the RFID chips are not the same as those used for warehouse inventory tracking over larger distances and will not permit "tracking" of individuals. "It will only permit governmental authorities to know that an individual has arrived at a port of entry -- which governmental authorities already know from presentation of nonelectronic passports -- with greater assurance that the person who presents the passport is the legitimate holder of the passport," according to the rules.

The RFID chips will store only information that is already printed on existing U.S. passports, including name, nationality, sex, date of birth, place of birth and a digitized photograph of the passport holder. Also stored will be the passport number, issue date, expiration date and type of passport.

The chip will also contain a secure digital signature that aims to prevent any digital data from being altered or removed, as well as a unique identification number for each RFID chip. The chips will not contain home addresses, Social Security numbers or other information that might aid identity theft.

Passports from different countries must adhere to standards set by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to be interoperable worldwide. The ICAO has developed international specifications for electronic passports that call for a minimum capacity of 32KB for data storage, but the U.S. passports will include twice that storage capacity in case new biometric data, such as fingerprints or iris scans, is added in the future. Any such additions would be subject to public comment periods, the agency said.

In addition to the special "antiskimming" material on the passport's front cover, the passports will include Basic Access Control technology that uses an algorithm to "unlock" the chip so it and the card reader can communicate.

"Only these readers can unlock the chip because of the Basic Access Control," said a State Department official who asked that her name not be used. "We looked carefully at all the comments we received from the public. We feel that these technologies do mitigate many of these concerns."

Fees for the new passports are expected to remain the same, according to the agency. The fee for applicants 16 and older is $55, plus a $12 security surcharge and a $30 processing fee, for a total of $97.

Paper passports now in use would be replaced as they are renewed, according to a State Department spokesman. About 8 million passports are renewed annually out of some 57 million passports in circulation. The passports would be printed and manufactured by private companies.

Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

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