State Department official defends passport efforts
A top official Friday reiterated the State Department's commitment to issue secure electronic passports -- even if it means missing a self-imposed deadline of granting the initial passports late this summer.
He also noted that Congress may have to pass legislation to extend the deadline that the United States has imposed on European Union member states to implement biometric authentication technology into their citizens' passports. The EU passport deadline is Oct. 26.
"We will only issue these passports when we have addressed this issue of unauthorized reading," said Frank Moss, the department's deputy assistant secretary of State for passport services. "We hope we will be ready by late summer, and I'm still aiming for that, but if we have to take more time, we will take more time."
Moss responded to critics of State's electronic passport initiative by saying the department will include additional security features to prevent people with scanners from reading an individual's passport data from a distance.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Washington privacy activist Bill Scannell have vociferously criticized the department for its decision to install radio chips in new U.S. passports. The chips are meant to help officials authenticate passports. They contain passport holders' biometric information that immigration officials' electronic readers would be able to recognize. Other organizations, such as the Association of Corporate Travel Executives, also have expressed concern with the program.
Scannell, the ACLU and others criticized the initial proposal for the unsecured radio chips because it could have made Americans vulnerable to identity thieves and terrorists who could have used scanners to remotely read data on the chip from several feet away. The chip contains data on a passport holder's data page as well as a holder's biometric photograph.
"Personally, I was actually shocked and horrified that they were planning on implementing this with no security at all," said Shawn Willden, who leads the architecture design efforts for IBM Global's smart cards. Willden said he spoke for himself and not his company.
But, he thought that State's solutions to the problem, such as using encryption technology and ensuring that the passports have metal covers to protect the data, are adequate. Nevertheless, in an e-mail exchange between industry colleagues, he said he expects privacy activists to continue to complain because Americans still could be vulnerable if they do not make sure that their passports are fully closed while carrying them in their bags. Willden suggested in a listserv that Americans should perhaps secure their passports with a paper clip.
"It's now getting absurd," Scannell said of the suggestion. "Why not just agree that this is a bad idea and let's move on?"
Asked whether the United States' own mishaps with the radio chip technology, and its likely delayed roll-out would have an impact on the requirements for European Union countries to implement biometric chips in their citizens' passports, Moss said: "We recognize that some of the same concerns experienced by our program are being experienced by Europeans ....We're working on it together ... and we're working on creative solutions, whether it be legislation or something else."
Separately, the Homeland Security Department last week said it would not be ready to deploy enough biometric passport readers by October.