OPINION

Here Come the Next-Gen Passports

This week, the U.S. State Department began rolling out “e-passports,” new high-tech documents that bolster border security through identity safeguards. In a dangerous world, upgrading passports is prudent policy that serves the interests of Americans at home and abroad, but not everyone is happy with them.

E-passports employ the use of radio frequency identification. RFID tags store unique data sets that can be read electronically and have been used successfully for decades on rugged terrain and in punishing environments. Wal-Mart has lauded RFID’s ability to improve its supply chain, and the U.S. military entrusts the tags to track cargo in the deadliest combat zones.

Border Control

Embedded in the back of these “next gen” passports, RFID tags duplicate the same personal information printed in the passport — name, birth date, passport number, state and a digitized photograph. The tags will be scanned by domestic customs officials to validate the printed information in order to deter fraudsters, illegal immigrants and unwanted predators from entering American territory.

At a time when fake Social Security cards and driver’s licenses can be bought on the street for a few hundred dollars, toughening the nation’s most important identity document is a good start for improving border control. Of course, e-passports don’t come without their naysayers.

For months, privacy advocates have been busy pulling political fire alarms, warning of supposedly enhanced privacy and terrorism threats posed by the new e-passports. The main concern is the possibility of criminal elements electronically eavesdropping or “skimming” crowds in attempts to identify and target Americans, or corrupting the wireless technology to slip through our borders undetected. In truth, recent developments have given some e-passport proponents pause.

Maintaining Integrity

During a demonstration at a summer hackers conference in Las Vegas, a security consultant showed how digital information from a German e-passport’s RFID tag could be read and copied, stoking a firestorm in the American media. Any potential problems with e-passport RFID could have global ramifications, as nearly 30 other countries join the U.S. in an international push to secure the world from terror and crime through passport upgrades. RFID industry experts, however, were quick to point out that the demonstration proved little, if anything.

Even if someone were able to overcome the significant barriers and somehow crack the American RFID code, copied RFID data could not be changed. Since it includes a digital photograph of the original passport bearer, it’s unlikely that the data would be of transferable use to a thief. Any attempts to change user data could be detected by passport control officials, whose scanners are specially designed to read the encrypted information.

Additional safeguards have been added to the e-passport design to maintain the integrity of RFID. New passport covers are shielded with metallic thread so that the radio tag can only be read when the back cover is open and directly facing a government scanner. A digital signature on each e-passport ensures that only these scanners can make the RFID tag emit its radio signal after a scan, which must be hovering within 10 centimeters.

Part of the Solution

Americans should also remember that it doesn’t take high-tech sophistication to steal passports or scout strangers in foreign countries. Residents are well aware of popular tourist destinations, and pickpockets are universal. Despite the rollout of e-passports, Americans in Paris and Rome are still more likely to encounter purse snatchers than Islamic jihadists roaming the streets with RFID scanners.

Those concerned about identity theft outside the country should adopt more low-tech preventive measures, like learning the language of their destination, being aware of their surroundings, and dressing to fit local customs and styles.

After 9-11, securing our homeland has proved an elusive policy objective, but technology can go a long way toward keeping our citizens safe. In the pursuit of effective programs to protect our nation from terror, high-tech measures such as e-passports are part of the solution — not the problem.


Sonia Arrison, a TechNewsWorld columnist, is director of Technology Studies at the California-based Pacific Research Institute.


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