Infineon Lands Contract for Passport Security Chips

Infineon Technologies said Monday it had landed an order for millions of data storage chips from the U.S. government, which will be featured in a new generation of electronic passports.

The exact size of the contract was not disclosed, but Infineon said it received a “multimillion piece purchase order” for the chips, which are designed to help speed travel by allowing for faster identity verification.

Electronic Data

The government has said it plans to issue some 15 million new electronic passports, sometimes referred to as “smart” passports, within the next year. Germany-based Infineon said it would not be providing all of the chips required for the transition.

The U.S. government began issuing electronic passports last year. Plans call for including the electronic feature in new passports issued to private citizens. The technology consists of a chip embedded in the cover of the passport that can be scanned by reading devices based in airports and at other border crossings.

Using radio frequency identification (RFID) and other technologies, the chips contain all the information normally included in a printed passport, including birth date and other data as well as a digital photograph.

“The United States is helping to set the pace for adoption of more secure travel documents around the world,” said Christopher Cook, Managing Director of Infineon Technologies North America, the company’s San Jose, Calif.-based U.S. subsidiary.

Tried and True

Infineon said its experience in designing chips for use in other secure settings, such as financial services, helped it win the contract. The company had to solve several technology problems — such as making the data stored on the chip easily and quickly readable by authorized scanners or other devices, while shielding it from other readers to protect the privacy of passport carriers.

The chips will be equipped with technology known as “Basic Access Control,” or BAC, which instantly authorizes a device to read the chips when they are held within about four inches of a scanner. The data is also encrypted, providing another layer of security, Infineon noted.

The U.S. is one of 20 countries that has begun to use its chips in electronic passports, Infineon said; others include Germany, Hong Kong, Norway and Sweden.

The potential market for the chips is significant, with an estimated 67 million U.S. residents holding passports and some 900 million passports worldwide, some 125 million of which come up for renewal each year.

Solutions and Problems

In the aftermath of Sept. 11, many hoped that emerging and existing technologies could provide security safeguards that would make a terrorist attack on U.S. soil more difficult to perpetrate. Some even predicted a long-term boost for the tech sector as new solutions were rolled out to make airports and other border crossings more secure.

Many of the new solutions pose their own risks, though, and some have questioned whether it’s prudent to store critical personal data on a chip that could be scanned from a distance.

A recent hacker demonstration in which an RFID-enabled passport was scanned from a distance was cited by some as proof the new passportscould be privacy risks, said Sonia Arrison, director of technology studies at the Pacific Research Institute.

Still, she said, it’s far more likely for identity theft to happen through purse-snatching or other traditional means of obtaining personal data. “Technology can go a long way toward keeping our citizens safe,” she said. “High-tech measures such as e-passports are part of the solution — not the problem.”

The use of RFID does present new security risks, but ones that can be addressed or overcome by existing and emerging technology, Gartner analyst John Pescatore said.

Smart passports may be just one step in the continuing evolution of security in the travel arena, with much-hyped solutions such as biometric fingerprint readers or eye scanners still well in the future in terms of widespread use, he added.

“Technology does offer ways to improve security while still making sure people can move around freely,” Pescatore said, but doesn’t offer quick fixes or foolproof answers.

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