Marrying Passports and Smart Cards

Hastily arranged though it may be, this union's offspring could include millions of national ID cards and driver's licenses with chips and biometrics


Hastily arranged though it may be, this union's offspring could include millions of national ID cards and driver's licenses with chips and biometrics, as well as a new generation of electronic passports.

It has the feel of a shotgun wedding, with the U.S. government forcing the issue, but the marriage of smart card technology and passports is at hand. Facing a U.S.-imposed October 2005 deadline to begin issuing electronic passports carrying biometric data, many countries are making plans to order passports containing contactless smart card chips and antennas.

Contactless chips were chosen last year by the International Civil Aviation Organization, which sets travel documents standards for 188 member nations, as the best way to store biometric data for verifying the identity of travelers. Since then, passport agency officials have been criss-crossing the globe attending standard-setting meetings and vendor interoperability tests, all aimed at creating a system that would allow, for instance, a chip-based passport issued by Pakistan to be read by border guards in Brazil.

"It's turned out to be more work than we thought it would be," says Jean-Pierre Houle, e-passport project manager in the Canadian Passport Office, who says achieving interoperability has been the biggest hurdle. "You can do it within your own country, but when we started doing it with the world it became more complex."

Those technical issues remain troublesome, and some passport experts believe countries will move slowly while better specifications are developed. But there now seems no turning back, and the trickle of chip-based passports starting to appear this fall should turn into a torrent within a few years. What's more, similar technology is likely to start showing up in smart card-based national ID cards, frequent traveler cards and driver's licenses, boosting the impact of the e-passport mandate.

Even just counting passports, the demand is likely to be substantial. Industry sources say 110 million new and renewed passports are issued each year globally. When adding in visas and other border-crossing cards, U.S.-based consulting firm Dreifus Associates projects that the number of travel documents carrying contactless chips will grow from test quantities this year to an annual demand of 240 million units by 2008.

Opponents of electronic identification documents have made their own sweeping estimates for how many individuals worldwide will be carrying documents with biometric data, such as digital photos, fingerprints and iris scans. UK-based Privacy International predicts that more than 1 billion travelers will have their biometric data captured and stored by 2015 if the world's governments do not reverse the course set on their behalf by ICAO.

'Policy Laundering'
In fact, Gus Hosein, a senior fellow at Privacy International, says many governments are using the standards set by ICAO at the behest of the United States as a justification for introducing biometric-based passports without a thorough debate at the national level.

"National governments often say that consultation is unnecessary because they are merely adhering to 'international obligations,'" he says. "It is a great case of passing the buck, or as we call it, policy laundering."

The U.S. Congress got the ball rolling soon after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, by passing a law in 2002 requiring countries whose citizens can enter the United States without a visa to begin issuing tamper-resistant, machine-readable passports carrying biometric data by October 2004. Congress recently extended that deadline one year when it became apparent that many Visa Waiver nations could not meet the 2004 deadline.

There are 27 Visa Waiver countries, including most of Western Europe and Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Singapore and Uruguay. Some non-Visa Waiver countries plan to issue e-passports, as well, either to prepare for enrollment in the Visa Waiver program or to better secure their own borders, says Patrice Plessis, standardization manager in the ID and Security business unit of France-based smart card vendor Gemplus International SA. Hungary, Poland, Hong Kong and the United Arab Emirates are examples he cites.

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