E-passports coming for American travelers

Chip embedded in back cover will contain digitized photo, other data


September 18, 2005|By Alfred Borcover | By Alfred Borcover,Special to the Sun

A new high-tech passport era is dawning.

Starting toward the end of this year and progressing through next, the new generation of passports issued by the State Department will be electronic.

E-passports, as they are called, are not to be confused with airline e-tickets, which are merely a piece or pieces of paper. E-passports will look much the same as today's machine-readable passports with the familiar gold-embossed blue cover.

But the e-passports will contain an electronic chip with uniquely encoded biometric information (a facial photograph) and a coil, or antenna, if you will, embedded in the back cover. The chip will duplicate the information that's on the passport's data page -- digitized photo, name, birth date, place of birth, nationality and the like.

The e-passport also will incorporate codes and additional anti-fraud and security features. With today's thin technology, the chip, coil and metallic security shield will not add any detectable thickness to the cover.

The United States and 27 visa-waiver countries -- mainly Western European nations along with Australia and Japan that reciprocally don't require visas of American citizens -- are in the vanguard of moving into the electronic passport era.

In 2002, the U.S. enacted the Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act, which required these countries to issue biometric passports by Oct. 27, 2006. The International Civil Aviation Organization, which sets international standards for passports as well as customs and immigration matters, called for a chip that could store a digital photo, iris scan and fingerprint. The U.S. passport will carry only a digital photo, while other countries might add a fingerprint.

Developing a secure e-passport has not been without problems. The biggest difficulties have centered on privacy issues caused by the way the ICAO specifications were presented, according to Neville Pattinson, director of business development, technology and government affairs for Axalto, a technology firm in Austin, Texas, that is developing an e-passport.

"The specs allowed the information in the passport to be read without any security access controls," he said.

Axalto, said to be the world's leading provider of microprocessor cards, is one of three finalists bidding for the passport chip contract, and it works with several federal agencies on identity management, security and biometrics.

Pattinson identified two e-passport security problems that cropped up in the early development phases: "skimming" and eavesdropping attacks. Someone with the right apparatus could electronically "skim" information from the passport from one to two feet away without the user knowing. The second problem, he said, was the remote possibility of eavesdropping. He said that in an environment such as an airport check-in counter, somebody with an antenna and receiver 30 feet away could intercept data transmitted by radio waves between a reader and passport.

"We've introduced security technology to deal with both of those attacks," Pattinson said. "Now, the passport chip, which gets its power from a radio transmission applied to it from the passport reader, has to be awakened. What we've done is to make the chip very unhelpful until it gets a certain code sent to it through the radio."

In order to get to that code, the passport needs to be opened to the data page, the one with the photo, other printed information and two lines of characters that run horizontally across the page. The reader scans the characters, finds the code that's unique to the passport and awakens the chip.

"We also added a secondary feature, which encrypts that code. Any information the passport reader requests from the passport is encrypted when it goes through the radio circuit into radio waves, so when it is received, the reader can decrypt it and make sense of it. But while it's in the radio environment, it's gobbledygook to anybody trying to eavesdrop," Pattison said.

When an immigration officer holds an e-passport over a reader, he or she will be able to view a traveler, his passport's data page and the digital information embedded in the chip on a monitor to make certain the document has not been altered. A government digital signature also verifies the correctness of the passport information. The whole passport screening process should take no more than 5 seconds.

For U.S. citizens who already have a passport, it will remain valid for its 10-year duration. As for the e-passport, Angela Aggeler, spokeswoman for the State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs, said a pilot program is under way using a document with built-in security, and additional security features are being considered that are similar to those developed by Axalto.

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