- United Airlines pilots and crew are the flying guinea
pigs in a test of controversial new passports equipped with remotely readable
- Approximately 300 United employees stationed on international
flights received the new passports in mid-June as part of a three-month,
three-country test of IDs equipped with RFID chips. The chips can be read
at a distance at border crossings by special readers installed for the
- The test is intended to see how easily Australia, New
Zealand and the United States can read other's e-passports and how durable
the chips are under constant use.
- The new chips are part of post-9/11 security efforts
intended to curb passport fraud and speed up border crossings, according
to Frank Moss, the State Department's deputy assistant secretary for passport
- "The new passport undercuts the market in lost and
stolen travel documents, because if you steal one of these you are not
going to do much with it," Moss said.
- The 64-KB chips store a copy of the information from
a passport's data page, including name, date of birth and a digitized version
of the passport photo. To prevent counterfeiting or alterations, the chips
are digitally signed.
- The United States is requiring all 27 countries whose
citizens do not need visas to visit to begin issuing e-passports by October
2006. The original deadline was October 2004, but wrangling over standards
and privacy protections has delayed upgrades by many of those countries.
- Stateside critics would like to derail the current U.S.
effort -- they believe the unencrypted chips could endanger Americans.
Because the chips can be read from several feet away, they could serve
as a beacon to thieves and terrorists targeting Americans traveling abroad,
- They argue the chips should either be locked down with
encryption or replaced with optical technology that can only be read if
the passport is flipped open.
- When the State Department opened the plan for public
comment, over 2,000 individuals, along with privacy and business-travel
advocacy groups, criticized the technology.
- In response to that criticism, and demonstrations of
the chips' range, the State Department included some shielding in the covers
of the passports given to the United employees. The agency didn't disclose
what kind of material it used, but it has in the past publicly considered
employing a metallic fiber weave in the cover.
- The United States is also contemplating more safeguards,
including the encryption technology it initially opposed, as it moves toward
issuing the passports to the general public in early 2006.
- "We are seriously considering the adoption of basic
access control," Moss said, referring to a process where chips remain
locked until a code on the data page is first read by an optical scanner.
The chip would then also transmit only encrypted data in order to prevent
- Roy Want, an RFID expert at Intel, doesn't dismiss the
possibility that e-passports could put travelers at risk of being robbed
or killed. But he says covertly reading the devices is not easy in the
- "If have your passport in your bag which has metal
keys or candy wrappers, it is going to disrupt the transfer of information,"
Want said. "If you have a very sophisticated piece of technology,
you may be able to read them, but someone is not going to walk around with
some sort of clever PDA that is going to measure these."
- Lee Tien, an attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation,
is unwilling to accept such assurances until he sees the government's test
data, which has not yet been made public. He also questions whether the
government is actually considering using encryption.
- "I am skeptical how serious they are about basic
access control if they are testing this in the wild and they are using
chips that broadcast in the clear," Tien said.
- Officials from the three countries will meet this week
to discuss the interoperability results, while results from laboratory
tests will be shared publicly in September, according to the State Department.
- © Copyright 2005, Lycos, Inc. All Rights Reserved.