'Electronic' Passports under Fire from Privacy Advocates

The United States hasn't issued any microchip-equipped passports yet, but as the Department of State tests different prototypes, the international standards for the passports are under fire from privacy advocates who worry the technology won't protect travelers from identity thieves.

The American Civil Liberties union has raised alarms, and even an executive at one of the companies developing a prototype for the State Department calls the international standards woefully inadequate.

The international standards for "electronic" passports were set by the U.N.-affiliated International Civil Aviation Organization, which has worked on standards for machine-readable passports since 1968.

On the latest passports, the agency has 'taken a 'keep it simple' approach, which, unfortunately, really disregards a basic privacy approach and leaves out the basic security methods we would have expected to have been incorporated for the security of the documents," said Neville Pattinson, an executive at Axalto North America, which is working on a prototype U.S. electronic passport.

As part of heightened security after Sept. 11, 2001, all new U.S. passports issued by the end of 2005 are expected to have a chip containing the holders' name, birth date and issuing office, as well as a "biometric" identifier -- a photo of the holders' face. The photo is the international standard for biometrics, but countries are free to add other biometrics, such as fingerprints, for greater accuracy.

Privacy advocates have complained about the security standards for the passports, but Pattinson is the most prominent person involved in their creation to express concern that they could become prey for identity thieves if safeguards aren't standardized.

A slide in a presentation he gives says, "Don't lose the public's confidence at the get go." Another asks, "Who is up for a black eye?"

The international passport standards call for "a very sophisticated smart card device," that uses a chip and an antenna embedded in the passports' covers, he said.

The passport chips would be microprocessors that could send one piece of information at a time in answer to queries from a machine reader. They could also be equipped with multiple layers of encryption for security.

The international standards spell out ways the passports could incorporate more protection from identity thieves, but make them optional.

Under the standards, information on the chip could be picked up by someone who wires a briefcase with a reader, then swings it within inches of a passports, Pattinson said. Over a greater distance, an interloper could eavesdrop on border control devices reading the passports.

"There's no security built into it," said Barry Steinhardt, director of the technology and liberty program, at the American Civil Liberties Union. "This will enable identity theft and put Americans at some risk when they travel internationally."

One rudimentary way to protect electronic passports from identity thieves is to wrap them in tinfoil, which blocks radio waves. A single size Doritos bag would do the trick. Protecting border control agents' readers with a metal shield would protect against eavesdropping.

The International Civil Aviation Organization and State Department say they're looking at more organized methods.