Electronic Passports May Make Traveling Americans Targets, Critics Say

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A State Department plan to introduce electronic passports this summer has raised concern among a number of observers that, in an attempt to help protect Americans at home, the government could put U.S. travelers abroad at risk from terrorists and thieves.

Some privacy advocates and travel groups charge that a remotely readable chip in the passports, which the State Department intends to begin issuing after a roll-out to government employees in August, could be scanned by criminals or terrorists out to target Americans.

This is what an American electronic passport would look like.
This is what an American electronic passport would look like.
Under current plans, the chip, called a radio-frequency ID or RFID chip, will contain the same identifying information as is printed in the passport--name, passport number, birthday, and place of birth. The data will be unencrypted, and will also include a digital picture for use with facial recognition technology.

The read-only, digitally signed chip is meant to prevent forged passports and improve U.S. border security. It would be examined by border officials using electronic readers tuned to the chip's radio frequency.

How It Works

The RFID chip doesn't actively broadcast, but, with the right equipment, it can be read from a distance, although just how far is under dispute. That potential for remote identification draws sharp concern from privacy activists, travel groups, and many others, including some 1500 people who in one week left comments on a Web site--RFIDkills.com--where they were forwarded to the State Department.

The State Department and the technical specification for the chip say that the data can be read only within four inches, but critics contend the signal can be detected from as far away as 60 feet.

Terrorists and criminals could take advantage of the electronic passports to target Americans, according to the Business Travel Coalition, a consumer advocacy group that has been lobbying against the plan.

"American business travelers have taken steps when traveling abroad to maintain a low profile," a BTC statement says. "While most U.S. citizens do not expect their government to protect them while traveling in foreign lands, they do not expect to have their government knowingly put them in harm's way."

Take Cover

To prevent the potential threat against American travelers, the State Department says it plans to include material in the passport cover that will block the signal from the RFID chip. The shielding cover would mean the chip could be read only when the passport is open.

"We would not make a target of American citizens," says Kelly Shannon, spokeswoman for the Bureau of Consular Affairs within the State Department. Since the bureau is also responsible for helping Americans abroad who have been attacked or robbed, the agency, she said, would be working against its own mission if the new passports put travelers at risk.

She added that the planned passport cover would also address the concerns of privacy advocates who contend the electronic passports could heighten the potential for domestic surveillance. For instance, an unblocked RFID chip could be read by a device surreptitiously installed at a doorway.

Texas Instruments, a major manufacturer of RFID chips, confirmed that a properly designed cover could block the RFID signal.

"Stitching a metal web into the cover creates a Faraday cage," says V.C. Kumar, manager for emerging markets at TI. "It kills the RFID signal."

While the U.S. passport might not use metal in the cover as a shield, a traveler could take the additional precaution of storing the passport in a metal case or metallic wrapping to block the signal.

Objections Continue

Bill Scannell, who says he has served as an intelligence officer in the Army and now maintains the RFIDkills.com Web site, says the State Department has chosen the wrong technology for the new passports, and should use something other than a remotely readable chip to store the electronic data.

"They (State Department officials) don't have a Dr. Evil plot to watch our every move around the planet," Scannell says, "but they did fall in love with the technology."

He adds, "Does it make any sense to plant a transmitter into a passport and then make it difficult to broadcast?"

Scannell suggests that passports could store all the same information in an optical chip that couldn't be read remotely, as an RFID chip can be.

Scannell and other critics also say travelers have to use their passports for identification at places other than borders. An American showing his passport at a European hotel or airport could have his information stolen by someone nearby with a reader, they say.

The State Department's choice of the RFID chip follows international specifications for technology in machine-readable travel documents, says Shannon.

Preventative Action?

Some Americans concerned about the potential risks of electronic passports are obtaining or renewing regular paper-and-ink passports before the new electronic ones are issued.

Michael, an information security engineer in San Francisco who did not want his last name used, does not want the new electronic passport. So when he learned recently he could get a renewal even if his current passport wasn't expired, lost, or damaged, he quickly sent in an application.

"I guess my concern with the electronic passport is that, given other less worrisome but equally effective technology alternatives, the government has not presented compelling reasons why RFID is the best solution for its citizens," Michael says.

Michael and others with privacy and security concerns--he says he knows about half a dozen others who have also tried to beat the deadline--may have contributed to the recent sharp increase in the number of passports issued. The State Department issued 1.5 million more passports in 2004 than in 2003, according to its Web site.

Shannon said the current application rate is even higher than in 2004, although she said other factors, such as new cruise ship passport requirements, could also be contributing to the increase. And she added that the State Department does not plan to force people to switch to electronic passports before their old ones expire, but that American travelers might face electronic passport requirements from other countries before their low-tech passport becomes invalid.

Specifically, the European Union may soon require that American citizens have either an electronic passport with biometric capabilities or a visa before they enter EU countries. The EU's move to add this requirement came after the U.S. government said that an October deadline for European travelers to have one or the other to enter the United States may not be extended.

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