An eye toward a future with electronic passports

Chips could become fast and reliable enough to allow the electronic issuance of visas in five years.

As the State Department tries to meet the demand for electronic passports, which the agency began issuing last August, the companies producing the chip technology are marking the anniversary by looking ahead to what's next.

Frank Moss, the former deputy assistant secretary for passport services at the State Department who oversaw the transition to e-passports, said as chips become faster and more reliable, it may be possible to issue visas electronically five years down the road.

"These first-generation chips are good, but they can certainly be better," Moss said. He looks forward to technical improvements to make it faster to write data to the electronic chips imbedded in the passports, faster to read the chips and easier to scan the passports in the readers.

Moss, who now has his own consulting firm, Identity Matters, with clients like Texas Instruments, said another possibility is that entry and exit stamps on passports could become electronic as well. He said if a visa expires, it would be more easily caught.

"An electronic record has an advantage over a guard," Moss said.

For the State Department, however, production speed rather than chip speed has been the challenge lately. It used to take four to six weeks to get a U.S. passport and now takes about 12.

In congressional hearings this summer, the department blamed an unforeseen increase in demand. The agency issued 7 million passports in 2003 and is expected to issue 17 million this year.

"This increase in requests -- over and beyond even the enormous demand we anticipated -- has resulted in longer than expected processing times for passport applications," Maura Harty, assistant secretary for consular affairs, explained in a video now posted on State's Web site.

Harty announced in June that those who have applied for passports, but not received them, could still travel to Bermuda, Canada, the Caribbean and Mexico through Sept. 30 by showing proof they applied for passports.

Moss said he didn't anticipate the spike in demand and attributes the biggest reason to the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, which would have required those traveling to Bermuda, Canada, the Caribbean and Mexico to have passports starting Jan. 23, 2007.

Moss said the new technology with an RFID chip probably does add some production time for passports, but mostly the lag is simply a matter of overwhelming demand.

State announced this week that it would take $20 instead of $6 out of passport fees, which are typically $97, to boost efforts to produce passports more quickly.

Moss predicts that as more people use the chip-based passports, privacy concerns will decrease. He said the United States is the only country to use three different identity protection measures -- anti-skimming material to block interception of the information, encrypted communication between chip and readers, and chips with ID numbers that change every time they are read.