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


The U.S. law required that the electronic passports-including the ones the U.S. will issue-comply with ICAO standards. That prompted the United Nations-affiliated agency to accelerate its work on defining a standard for high-tech passports.

In spring 2003, ICAO mandated that electronic passports carry an embedded contactless smart card chip and antenna so that countries could securely store biometric data while retaining the booklet format. Other technologies with the storage capacity to hold tens of thousands of bytes of data, such as contact smart card chips and optical stripes, would require use of a plastic card in place of the passport book.

ICAO also specified a digitized facial image as the minimum biometric stored on the chips, with countries permitted to also use fingerprint biometrics and iris recognition for added security.

Contract Awards
While the relative immaturity of contactless smart card technology posed unexpected challenges for passport officials (Card Technology, September 2004), governments have moved forward to seek bids and award contracts for chip-based passports.

Belgium became the first to issue ICAO-compliant passports this summer in a test with diplomatic personnel. Sweden and Denmark have awarded contracts for chip-based passports to be delivered in 2005, and the United States and Australia were expected to award contracts late last month. Other Visa Waiver countries are in various stages of moving to electronic passports, in some cases waiting for ICAO to finalize its specs or for the European Union to issue its requirements before putting contracts out to bid.

And several countries have made clear that they want to use smart card chips and biometrics in more than just passports.

In the United Kingdom, for example, the government announced last November a 10-year plan to introduce a family of ID documents with chips and biometrics. That plan was accelerated following the Madrid railway bombing in March, with talk of introducing a voluntary national ID card as early as 2007.

The government's plan is to offer an identity document carrying biometric data in at least three forms: the chip-based, ICAO-compliant passport booklet; a driver's license; or an identity card for those who have neither passport nor driver's license. Also under consideration is a passport on a smart card for those who only plan to travel to Europe, the United States and other countries where they would not need a paper visa.

As a first step, the UK government in April began a six-month test of facial, iris and fingerprint biometrics, aiming to enroll 10,000 volunteers. The test is being conducted jointly by the UK Passport Service, Home Office Identity Card Unit and the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, which issues driver's licenses.

The political sensitivity of issuing a national identity card in Britain, where ID cards have been common only in wartime, has had Home Secretary David Blunkett waffling over whether the card would be voluntary or mandatory, and Prime Minister Tony Blair keeping his distance from the issue.

The government's current stance is that carrying any of the identity documents would be voluntary until 80% of the population enrolled, at which time Parliament would vote on making it mandatory to carry one of the three forms of identification, says John Elliott of UK-based Consult Hyperion. "To get to 80% they'd love the driver's license to be one of the three, because the 'voluntary uptake' would be compulsory for all drivers," Elliott says.

A Removable Card
Singapore has a somewhat similar vision to that of the UK in that it would like to see the same card that is used to enter the country also used for other purposes, including for securely transacting business over the Internet with a digital certificate stored in the smart card chip. Singapore's idea is to issue a smart card that could slip into a sleeve in an existing passport to meet U.S. requirements, but also be removed so that the citizen could use the chip card as a driver's license, national ID card and for commercial purposes, such as storing airline boarding passes.