Each year, about 100,000 U.S. passports are reported lost or stolen. And an estimated 100,000 passports issued by countries whose citizens don't need a visa to visit the United States have also been stolen in recent years.
The problem isn't a minor one. At least one of the September 11 hijackers is believed to have entered the United States with a stolen passport. Three of the terrorists had reported their passports stolen so they could get clean ones that didn't show their travel histories. Last fall, two of the killers of Afghan opposition leader Ahmed Shah Massoud were holding stolen Belgian passports. And during the ongoing war in Afghanistan, abandoned caves have been found littered with blank U.S. and European passports. So, what if stolen passports could notify their home country of their exact location?
They could if they were equipped with a radio-frequency identification tag about the size of a large paper clip. The tag could be embedded in a passport and loaded with information that could confirm the identity of the holder. It would be tough to counterfeit, too.
Such tags were originally designed to help grocery stores manage their stock and to help Gillette combat the burgeoning black market for its stolen razors. Commercially, they're thought of as the successor to the bar code.
In the security world, some researchers suggest that the tags could be coupled with biometric technology that would allow a passport to be used only if the holder's fingerprint matched the information embedded in the passport. Jeffrey Jacobsen, president of Morgan Hill, Calif.-based Alien Technology, one of the leading manufacturers of the technology, estimates that the tags will be on the market by 2003 for about $10 each, but manufacturers say that with enough demand, the price could come down significantly-to, say, $2 to $3.
"They have huge potential here," said Paul Saffo, a director at the Institute for the Future, a research firm in Menlo Park, Calif. "It's not a silver bullet, but it's a powerful tool."
Powerful indeed. Border agencies could get a daily e-mail listing the locations of all the passports belonging to people whose visas have expired but who are still in the country. The FBI could affix the devices to the belongings of someone they are trying to follow. An investigator suspicious that a terrorist plot is being hatched in a particular location could use a computer to call up all the passports in that area.
One of the most intriguing possibilities is the idea of combining the tags with what Alien Technology calls NanoBlocks, which are sensors to detect biological and environmental changes. Developed initially by military researchers to detect spoiled food, these sensors could eventually be programmed to identify all kinds of harmful substances-anthrax, for example-and e-mail the appropriate person if something is detected.
These sensors, which Jacobsen said could cost as little as 1 to 5 cents each, could be coupled with a radio-frequency tag and placed virtually anywhere-in a building's ventilation system, in various locations in an airplane, or in a reservoir. He said that sensors for different types of chemical and biological hazards could be developed over the next 18 months to five years. "You're talking about adding a few dollars to every plane and knowing everything that's going on that might hurt you," Jacobsen says.
Until recently, radio-frequency identification technology was hampered by an international turf war. Several different companies had developed their own frequencies and their own way to read the frequencies, which made the technology expensive-and not particularly useful. In January 2001, a group of international companies got together to form the Auto-ID Center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and agreed to decide on a common frequency. Since then, manufacturers such as Alien have been working to reduce their production costs to bring prices down.
Of course, none of this technology would be used without a vigorous civil-liberties debate. "There's this thing of mission creep or function creep," worries Mihir Kshirsagar, a policy fellow at the Electronic Privacy Information Center. "Would it be used for other documents? Would it be used for other things? The idea is very similar, in some of its privacy implications, to saying, `Why don't we put a chip on the person?' " And Kshirsagar has a larger worry: If the U.S. government can pick up a passport's signal from anywhere in the world, couldn't a well-heeled terrorist group do the same?
Calling this technology "FedEx tracking on steroids," Deirdre K. Mulligan, director of the law and technology clinic at the University of California at Berkeley, cautions that any technology has limitations. "You can have better technology to know moment by moment where [potentially dangerous foreigners] are," she said. "But if [we] don't have enough people to round them up, what good does it do?"