All US passports will be implanted with remotely readable computer
chips starting in October 2006, the Bush administration has announced.
Sweeping new State Department regulations issued on Tuesday say passports
issued after that time will have tiny RFID chips that can transmit personal
information including the name, nationality, sex, date of birth, place of birth
and digitised photograph of the passport holder. Eventually, the government
contemplates adding additional digitised data such as "fingerprints or
Over the last year, opposition to the idea of implanting RFID chips in passports
has grown amidst worries that identity thieves could snatch personal information
out of the air simply by aiming a high-powered antenna at a person or a vehicle
carrying a passport. Out of the 2,335 comments on the plan that were received
by the State Department this year, 98.5 per cent were negative. The objections
mostly focused on security and privacy concerns.
But the Bush administration chose to go ahead with embedding 64KB chips in
future passports, citing a desire to abide by "globally interoperable"
standards devised by the International Civil Aviation Organization, a United
Nations agency. Other nations, including the United Kingdom and Germany, have
announced similar plans.
In regulations published on Tuesday, the State Department claims it has addressed
privacy concerns. The chipped passports "will not permit 'tracking' of
individuals", the department said. "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 non-electronic passports
- with greater assurance that the person who presents the passport is the legitimate
holder of the passport."
To address citizens' concerns about ID theft, the Bush administration said
the new passports will be outfitted with "anti-skimming material"
in the front cover to "mitigate" the threat of the information being
surreptitiously scanned from afar. It's not clear, though, how well the technique
will work against high-powered readers that have been demonstrated to read RFID
chips from about 160 feet away.
A State Department official, who did not wish to be identified by name, said
on Tuesday: "The shielding in the passport is a physical device that basically,
when the passport cover is closed, it's very difficult to read the chip."
The official was unable to provide details about the material's composition.
The National Institute of Standards and Technology, which has been working to
evaluate the chip's vulnerability to skimming, was unable to provide further
information on Tuesday.
Privacy advocates said the anti-skimming device was a decent start. But if
the cover of the passport happens to be open, all bets are off, said Bill Scannell,
a privacy advocate who founded the site RFIDkills.com. He said: "They've
built little baby radio stations into peoples' passports and covered it with
concrete but when the little hatch is open, you can still hear the music."
"It's better than nothing," Scannell went on, "but why take
In addition, the passports will use "Basic Access Control", a reference
to storing a pair of secret cryptographic keys in the chip inside. The concept
is simple: the RFID chip disgorges its contents only after a reader successfully
authenticates itself as being authorised to receive that information.
Computer scientists, however, have criticised that encryption method as flawed.
In a recent paper, RSA Laboratories' Ari Juels, and University of California's
David Molnar and David Wagner, warned that the design of the encryption keys
is insufficiently secure. They said that the use of a "single fixed key"
for the lifetime of the e-passport creates a vulnerability.
The Bush administration could face an eventual legal challenge. A letter to
the State Department from privacy groups says there is "no statutory authority"
for the RFID passport because Congress has not authorised it.
Lee Tien, staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which co-authored
the comments, said: "Our point is, whatever Congress may have meant in
giving the State Department authority to issue passports was probably to issue
passports that were like the old passports.
"But at some point you are doing something that is significantly different,
which should probably require some sort of additional congressional authorisation.
The argument is how broadly does that authority go, and honestly, it's something
no one knows."