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State Department final regulations issued Tuesday said all U.S. passports issued after October 2006 will have embedded radio frequency identification chips that carry the holder's personal data and digital photo.
The department will begin the program in December 2005 with a pilot, issuing these passports to U.S. Government employees who use Official or Diplomatic passports for government travel. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a United Nations agency, has developed international specifications for electronic passports meant to keep information such as name, nationality, sex, date of birth, place of birth and digitized photograph of the passport holder secure. United Kingdom and Germany also have announced similar plans.
The passports will have 64 kilobyte RFID chip to permit adequate storage room in case additional data, or fingerprints or iris scan biometric technology is added in the future. The United States will follow ICAO's international specifications to participate in a global electronic passport initiative. The specification indicates a data format and use of a Public Key Infrastructure (PKI) that permits digital signatures to protect the data from tampering, according to the Bush administration.
Consumer opposition for implanting RFID chips in passports has grown during the past year as fear that identity thieves could steal personal information embedded in the chip within the passport. The State Department this year received 2,335 comments on the project, and 98.5 percent were negative, mostly focusing on security and privacy concerns, and concerns about being identified by terrorists as a U.S. citizen.
Some comments called for the inclusion of an anti-skimming device that would block unauthorized connections with the readable chip to gain access to the data. "The doomsday scenario has been the ability for terrorist to drive by several cafés to find and target the most Americans in one place," said Ray Everett-Church, attorney and principal consultant at PrivacyClue LLC. "I'm not sure how realistic that is, but when you work with these types of technologies you need to play out some of the possibilities to calm peoples' fears."
The State Department said it is planning to add technology, such as basic access control and anti-skimming material, to address fears related to skimming and eavesdropping. The anti-skimming material is being design into the front cover and spine of the electronic passport. The idea is to reduce the threat of skimming from distances beyond the ten centimeters, as long as the passport book is closed or nearly closed.