Lawsuit by vendor could delay e-passport

Belgium now uses passports with contactless chips.

Herwig Vergult

A spurned vendor's lawsuit against the Government Printing Office over the rejection of the vendor's electronic passport technology could further slow the introduction of the upgraded documents, according to industry observers.

The likely delay in the electronic passport process could flow through to other computerized border systems that rely on it, such as the contactless chip readers the Homeland Security Department must deploy to read the documents and im- proved database resources for pinpointing risky travelers, sources said.

The State Department already has delayed the introduction of passports equipped with contactless chip technology from mid-2005 to February 2006, largely as a result of protests late last year by On Track Innovations Inc. of Fort Lee, N.J.

OTI filed suit in the Court of Federal Claims in Washington after the Government Ac- countability Office rejected its bid protest over GPO's decision to pass on its technology.

Second rejection

GPO had eliminated OTI once before as well, but reopened the competition and allowed additional companies to furnish contactless chips for testing last winter.

After testing, GPO rejected OTI's product on technical grounds in mid-2005, federal and industry sources said.

A court official confirmed that the case of OTI America Inc. vs. the U.S. was assigned to Judge Charles Lettow Aug. 17.

OTI executives did not respond to repeated inquiries about the status of the legal action.

Frank Moss, deputy assistant secretary of State for consular affairs, said, 'We are in the final stages of our electronic and associated testing. We have an unresolved legal challenge to us in the Court of Federal Claims, but we remain optimistic that we will be producing electronic [diplomatic and official] passports in December 2005 and roll them out to the general public in February 2006.'

State has been testing contactless chips from ASK Contactless Technologies Inc. of France; Electronic Data Systems Corp. and Oberthur Card Systems of Rancho Do- minguez, Calif.; Axalto Inc. of Austin, Texas; Infineon Technologies North America Corp. of San Jose, Calif.; and Supercom Inc. of New York.

State has been progressively weeding out prospective vendors and now likely has narrowed the field to three possible vendors, though it has not identified them. Department policy calls for State to select at least two vendors for the smart passports.

Vendor sources were less optimistic about the speed of State's decision-making in light of the OTI litigation. They said the OTI lawsuit could stall the award of the electronic passport contracts for months.

'I certainly think the OTI lawsuit will slow things down,' said one industry executive. 'State's original goal was [to have] limited production this fall. That's now scaled back to limited production in December and then a larger deployment in February.'

'They have indicated a desire not to do anything until the court action is decided,' the smart-card vendor executive said.

State now has settled on implementing encryption as a form of basic access control for the electronic passports, but has not officially advised the contractors of its decision, vendors said.
This decision will bring the federal government into line with emerging European Union practice and was welcomed by some outside observers of the process.

'We had concern about the program as it was initially envisioned,' said Robert Atkinson, vice president of the Progressive Policy Institute. He said the lack of basic access control appeared to increase the privacy risks of the technology.

With basic access control, however, 'this approach will be secure and reduce passport fraud and identity theft,' Atkinson said.

State also has decided to incorporate a metallic shield component into the front cover of a passport and part of the back cover, Moss said. The metal sheet, which will be sandwiched between other layers of the passport cover, will form a Faraday box, or electromagnetic barrier, to eavesdropping or 'skimming' attempts, according to Moss.

Looming deadline

Congress has set an Oct. 26 deadline for countries in the Visa Waiver Program, which voids the requirement for visas to enter the U.S., to launch programs for issuing passports bearing digital photographs or contactless chips.

Federal officials would not say whether all the visa waiver countries would meet the deadline. Moss said that Japan, Britain and Germany have met the re- quirement by providing appropriate digital photographs in their passports. He added that Australia, Belgium and New Zealand now are producing passports with smart cards.

But Moss stopped short of saying all the visa waiver program countries would meet next October's deadline for full compliance with the contactless chip requirement.

Last week, State officials informed the Austrian government that because their passports do not comply with the requirements, Austrian citizens will have to obtain visas to enter the U.S. starting Oct. 27. State will have to issue about 400 new visas monthly as a result of this decision.

DHS declined to provide an official to be interviewed about the passport technology and responded to written inquiries about the visa waiver program with vague statements that the federal government is working with the visa waiver program countries.

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