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Passports go electronic with new microchip

Next year, new US passports will have a chip slipped under the cover, containing biometric and personal data. But privacy advocates worry about surveillance.

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The US passport is about to go electronic, with a tiny microchip embedded in its cover. Along with digitized pictures, holograms, security ink, and "ghost" photos - all security features added since 2002 - the chip is the latest outpost in the battle to outwit tamperers. But it's also one that worries privacy advocates.

The RFID (radio frequency identification) chip in each passport will contain the same personal data as now appear on the inside pages - name, date of birth, place of birth, issuing office - and a digitized version of the photo. But the 64K chip will be read remotely. And there's the rub.

The scenario, privacy advocates say, could be as simple as you standing in line with your passport as someone walks by innocuously carrying a briefcase. Inside that case, a microchip reader could be skimming data from your passport to be used for identity theft. Or maybe authorities or terrorists want to see who's gathered in a crowd and surreptitiously survey your ID and track you. Suddenly, "The Matrix" looks less futuristic.

The State Department maintains that such scenarios are outright fiction.

"A person can't be tracked," says Kelly Shannon, spokeswoman for the Bureau of Consular Affairs at the State Department. "It's not as if the information is going to broadcast and anyone with a receiver can be picking up that signal. There isn't a signal."

The passport, issued to officials and diplomats in early 2005 and to the public by the end of the year, is accessed using a reader that "pings" the microchip in order to release the data, much like proximity cards used for workplace ID badges. What prevents surveillance is that "the passport can only be read at a distance of 10 centimeters or less," explains Randy Vanderhoof, executive director of the Smart Card Alliance, an industry association that represents the four companies that produced prototype chips for the State Department.

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