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27 February 2006

America to issue e-passports later in 2006

The United States is issuing electronic passports as part of a pilot program for diplomatic passports, and plans to issue U.S. e-passports to the American public at all domestic passport agencies by the end of 2006, the State Department announced.

According to the State Department media note on the new passports, the e-passport integrates the latest concepts in electronic document protection and readability and aims to facilitate international travel for U.S. citizens while enhancing border security. The State Department began limited production of the e-passport December 30, 2005.

Officials say the e-passport is the same as a traditional passport with the addition of a small integrated circuit (or “chip”) embedded in the back cover. The new passport combines face-recognition and chip technology.

According to State Department documents, the chip securely will store the same data visually displayed on the photo page of the passport (name, date of birth, gender, place of birth, dates of passport issuance and expiration, passport number), and will also include a digital photograph. The inclusion of the digital photograph will enable biometric comparison, through the use of facial recognition technology at international borders, officials say.

"The information contained on the integrated circuit embedded in the passport will not provide a means to track U.S. citizens. This information will be used only in identity verification at ports of entry during travel," State Department Consular Affairs spokeswoman Laura Tischler said in an interview February 27.

To prevent data written to the chip from being susceptible to unauthorized reading, Tischler said that “anti-skimming” shielding material has been incorporated in the passports front cover, which she said prevents the chip from being read when the passport book is closed.

The official said the State Department also has included basic access control (BAC) technology in the new passports to prevent skimming and eavesdropping.

According to State Department documents, BAC is similar to a personal identification number used in automatic teller machine (ATM) transactions. In the case of the e-passport, characters from the printed machine-readable zone of the passport must be read first in order to unlock the chip for reading. Thus, when an electronic passport is presented to an inspector at a port of entry, the inspector must scan the printed lines of data to be able to read the data on the chip.

The biometric passport requirements stem from U.S. legislation passed in 2002 -- the Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act of 2002 (also known as the Border Security Act). The law originally required that the government of countries participating in the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) certify they had a program to produce tamper-resistant, machine-readable passports that incorporate a biometric identifier that complies with International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) standards by October 26, 2004. In mid-2004, Congress extended the deadline one year.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security, further clarified requirements for continued participation in the VWP in Spring 2005, specifying that by October 26, 2006, travelers from VWP countries with a passport issued on or after this date must present a passport with an integrated circuit chip, also known as e-passport, capable of storing biographic information from the passport’s data page, a digitized photograph and other biometric information.

The VWP enables citizens of 27 countries to visit the United States for tourism or business for up to 90 days without obtaining a visa. Those countries are Andorra, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brunei, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Monaco, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, San Marino, Singapore, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.

Tischler said the United States is leading global efforts to ensure the e-passport "is a secure, globally interoperable document that meets ICAO standards."

Discussing the benefits of the e-passport, she said the document prevents fraud and protects identity. "[I]f stolen, it makes it incredibly difficult for someone else to use your passport. It [The e-passport] gives border inspectors a new tool to verify you are the person to whom a given government issued that document," she said.

"The e-passport is a better way of ensuring the passport bearer is the person to whom the passport was issued," she said.

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