U.S. E-Passport Program Gets Moving

The process of moving the U.S. to an e-passport got a little closer this week. Both Infineon and Gemalto (formerly Gemplus and Axalto) announced that their companies had earned contracts with the Government Printing Office to deliver smart card-type technology for the passports. The technologies would add a chip to the outside of passports that could only be read by special readers and which could not be changed once affixed.

The electronic chip technology creates a digital record of the information in the passports, including the basic passport information such as the holder's name, passport number, date of birth, a digital version of the passport photo. E-passport readers at national points of entry can then read the data to ensure that the card matches the printed data, thus verifying the passport has not been tampered with.

The inclusion of personal data in an electronic format has caused an outcry over questions of privacy that Neville Pattinson, Gemalto's director of technology and government affairs, says is unwarranted. In an interview with SecurityInfoWatch.com, he explained that the technology doesn't work like common RFID "which has no security". Instead, the e-passport works in such a way that the chip data can only be read after a passport reading machine swipes the passport and sends a signal to activate the chip, upon which time it publishes the chip data in a secure manner to the reader. Unlike RFID tracking chips, Pattinson says, which the e-passport technology is often confused with, the data isn't be broadcasted out and is designed so that someone can't simply walk by you and capture your personal information. And because the new e-passport won't contain something as personal as a biometric fingerprint scan, the data isn't anything more private than what a passport official would read when looking at a current, non-electronic passport.

Gemalto's contract is to provide the contactless smart card technology in an overlay type format that can be affixed to the front of a standard passport. According to Pattinson, his company thoroughly tested the durability of the overlay against such concerns as would arise in travel, like being squashed in a back pocket, bent and folded while crammed in luggage, repeatedly stamped at entry points, even rained upon.

"The life expectancy had to be the same as a regular passport," said Pattinson, "which are issued for 10 years."

The implementation begins in 2007 for the e-passport technology, and the e-passport standards will be shared by a number of countries joining the U.S. and ICAO in the passport security project.

Both Gemalto and Infineon are delivering a 64-kilobyte chip which meets ICAO (the International Civil Aviation Organization) specifications and standards for security. Neither company specified what exactly the value or production numbers of their contracts entailed, but a look at the issuance of passports gives a good sense of the project.

In 2005, an estimated 10 million passports were issued by the U.S. Estimates for 2006 are close to 13 million, with likely a similar number for 2007 when the e-passport technology debuts in full production. By 2017, after the 10-year-life of the 2006 passports expire, all U.S. passports in circulation will be the so-called e-passports.

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