Feds put a fortress in your pocket

DHS, State integrate physical, electronic security into passports

The U.S. passport is the most valued travel and identity document in the world. The Homeland Security and State departments want to make it the most fraud-resistant one, too.

Following DHS requirements, State officials are releasing the first completely redesigned passport in more than a decade.

The new passport will include physical and electronic safeguards to stymie tampering or use by impostors, said Angela Aggeler, a spokeswoman at State's Bureau of Consular Affairs.

The new passport will have a digital photo printed on the first page, replacing laminated paper photos on the inside front cover of older passports, Aggeler said.

A small symbol on the new passport's front cover and a tiny bump in the upper left corner of its rear page are the only indicators that the passport contains a radio frequency identification (RFID) chip with biographical data and a digital photo, she said.

The chip holds 64K of data, but less than half of that will be used initially, Aggeler said. The extra storage is for other information or features that the department may decide to add later, she said. "It's a continuous effort to build a better mousetrap," she said.

The RFID chip upgrades how State checks passport data, Aggeler said. Since 1998, the bottom edge of the passport's primary information page has included two lines of machine-readable code containing the holder's passport number, name and nationality, she said. When scanned, the code contacts the main State database and summons that person's information for an officer to compare with the physical document, she said.

In addition to containing personal information, the RFID chip will include a mathematical fingerprint of the data, said Chris Voice, vice president for technology at Entrust. The department will use strong public-key infrastructure cryptography and Entrust's software to create a hash, or digital signature, which proves that information on the chip came from the department, he said. Any attempt to manipulate the passport's data would produce a different hash.

The document readers compute their own hash from the passport data and determine whether State made the passport's hash, Voice said. The reader then compares the hash with a public digital certificate at State to verify the passport hash's authenticity, he said.

State officials are testing the new technology in passports for travelers from the 27 countries in the Visa Waiver Program. Citizens of those countries do not need travel visas.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers at U.S. ports of entry will scan the chips as part of their primary inspection, said Jim Williams, director of the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology program. The DHS program screens foreign visitors entering and exiting the country to identify potential terrorists.

By Oct. 26, 2006, all entry officers will have a scanner at their stations, because Congress has required all new passports from visa-waiver countries to contain the chips by then, Williams said.

No legislative deadline exists for incorporating the technologies into U.S. passports, Aggeler said. State officials would like to include chips in diplomatic and official passports by this fall, she said. They would start adding RFID chips to regular passports next year, and ideally, all new U.S. passports would have the technology by the end of 2006, she said.


Mark your calendars

Countries in the Visa Waiver Program must augment their passports by Oct. 26 to meet the next big deadline.

On that day, all citizens from visa-waiver countries who wish to enter the United States must present passports with digital photos.

Oct. 26 is also the deadline for the countries to submit plans to the Homeland Security Department for issuing chip-enabled passports.

Countries will have to submit their first batch of chip-enabled e-passports by Sept. 1, 2006, for the United States to recognize the documents by Oct. 26, 2006.

DHS officials said they will work with officials from visa-waiver countries at an upcoming technical conference in September to ensure that the new e-passports work.

— Michael Arnone


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