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 visa technology that is going to be used is fairly similar to the one you have in passports," says Jean-Claude Deturche, vice president of marketing for France-based smart card vendor Axalto. The main difference is that the chip will have to be packaged so that it can be contained in a paper visa, rather than in a thicker page in a passport book.

He says for countries that plan to put the chip into the back cover of the passport the standard thickness of the cover will be at least double today's 350 microns to support the inlay consisting of a contactless chip, antenna and packaging. The inlay itself will be 350 microns thick, Deturche says. He says the visa, today 100 microns thick, will become 350 microns thick to hold an inlay of no more than 250 microns.

The EU has mandated a common standard for all member countries' electronic passports, and release of that standard is expected by December. Some observers believe fingerprints will be optional on EU passports, even though they are required on visas and residency permits.

Much To Be Done
What all these projects have in common are potentially high volumes and relatively short deadlines. That combination has had vendors working overtime to develop new products and enhance old ones. Meanwhile, government officials and their consultants have been trying to fit the pieces together to meet their needs.

One new requirement that emerged quickly was for contactless chips with more memory. Until ICAO chose contactless chips for passports, the largest radio frequency chips had 8 kilobytes of rewriteable memory. But ICAO says 32K is the minimum needed for a passport, 64K is preferable and more room may be needed soon as nations make more use of biometrics.