New e-passports to be readable at long distances

WASHINGTON -- Passport cards for Americans who travel to Canada, Mexico, Bermuda and the Caribbean will be equipped with technology that allows information on the card to be read from a distance.

The technology was approved Monday by the State Department and privacy advocates were quick to criticize the department for not doing more to protect information on the card, which can be used by U.S. citizens instead of a passport when traveling to other countries in the western hemisphere.

The technology would allow the cards to be read from up to 20 feet away. This process only takes one or two seconds, said Ann Barrett, deputy assistant secretary for passport services at the State Department. The card would not have to be physically swiped through a reader, as is the current process with passports.

The technology is "inherently insecure and poses threats to personal privacy, including identity theft," Ari Schwartz, of the Center for Democracy and Technology, said in a statement. Schwartz said this specific technology, called "vicinity read," is better suited for tracking inventory, not people.

The State Department said privacy protections will be built into the card. The chip on the card will not contain biographical information, Barrett said.

And the card vendor - which has yet to be decided - will also provide sleeves for the cards that will prevent them from being read from afar, she said.

A 2004 law to strengthen border security called for a passport card that frequent border crossers could use that would be smaller and more convenient than the traditional passport. Currently, officials must swipe travelers' passports through an electronic reader at entry points.

The technology change for passport cards was initially proposed in October 2006, and public comments closed on Jan. 7, 2007. The State Department received more than 4,000 comments, and most were about the security of the technology.

On Jan. 31, land and sea travelers returning to the United States from Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Bermuda will no longer be allowed to make an oral declaration of citizenship and must present a birth certificate, driver's license or passport.

To relieve a backlog at U.S. passport offices, the Bush administration recently delayed a requirement that Americans present passports when crossing the U.S. border by land or sea. The administration wanted to begin requiring passports or passport cards in mid-2008, but Congress mandates that the rule not go into effect until summer 2009.

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