E-passport's first deployment

RFID readers face privacy, technology concerns

The Model RTE 8000 passport reader

Rick Steele

The international adoption of radio frequency identification device technology for passports appears poised to meet two critical deadlines later this month, as the Homeland Security Department deploys document readers, and foreign governments adopt compatible IT.

Though the global acceptance of RFID technology is moving ahead quickly, with the European Union adopting similar rules in August, the process faces two challenges.

The first is concern by privacy advocates that the e-passports likely will make the border-crossing process less convenient and secure. The second is the risk that some countries could fail to launch e-passport programs in time to preserve their citizens' current privilege of entering the United States without a visa.

Mellisa Ngo, staff counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a Washington nonprofit, said, 'Earlier this year, we received [government] documents that said early tests [of the passports and readers] showed that they did not lead to more convenience, but in fact led to more difficulties [at border crossings].'

Added risk?

Ngo added that the RFID technology in the readers and passports introduces the risk that information on the chips could be intercepted, or skimmed, by a person positioned near an opened document.

The State Department consistently has rejected these concerns, and related allegations that the e-passports can be hacked.

As for the possibility that some countries' passport agencies might miss the Oct. 26 deadline, officials declined to specify which countries, or how many, were in jeopardy. Some congressional sources predicted that at least one of the 27 Visa Waiver Program countries would miss the deadline but comply by the end of the year.

The Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act of 2002 mandated that Visa Waiver Program countries establish biometric passport plans by 2004. Congress extended that deadline twice, most recently in May 2005, in response to requests by the State Department.

The Homeland Security Department plans to deploy the passport readers to 34 airports in the next few weeks, to meet the Oct. 26 congressional deadline. The department's U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology program kicked off the deployment by installing the units at San Francisco International Airport in late September.

The newly deployed e-passport readers are designed to mesh not only with the State Department's new travel documents, but with those of other countries as well.
All the documents comply with International Civil Aviation Organization standards for biometric identification.

State already has issued more than 40,000 e-passports from its Denver office, without substantive complaints from either the travelers or foreign governments, a department official said.

'An increasing number of U.S. citizens will have their passports read [by the new units] as these documents increase in number,' the official said.

The new passport readers will process both State's passports and those issued by the governments of the Visa Waiver Program countries.

DHS officials have selected the Model RTE 8000 passport reader unit from Rochford Thompson of Newbury, Berkshire, Britain for use at the airports.

Government Micro Resources Inc. of Manassas, Va., received a contract under NASA's Scientific and Engineering workstation Procurement III governmentwide acquisition contract to furnish the passport readers.

The vendor has delivered 500 readers at $1,760 each for a total of $888,000, U.S. Visit program officials said in an e-mail message.

The company has delivered all the units ordered, and DHS doesn't plan to purchase more of them now.

The contract runs for 12 months from the award date of Jan. 12, 2006, U.S. Visit officials said.

Both companies declined to offer details until DHS approves their general release later this month.

To begin the process of choosing the readers, the U.S. Visit program last year sent a request for information to 30 prospective vendors.

The agency received 11 readers and associated gear from 10 vendors by the deadline of April 2005.

Officials set up a test plan that started with 35 cases, covering capability, compatibility, operational aspects and performance.

Airport pilot

Toward the end of the testing project, officials chose three vendors' passport readers and installed them at Los Angeles International Airport.

DHS received the first group of tested readers free of charge from the vendors.

For the live test in Los Angeles, DHS purchased three units from each of the three downselected vendors, for a total of nine readers, via the NASA SEWP contract.

DHS plans to keep for 75 years the data it gathers via the passport readers, which will be integrated with the department's 'system of systems' for border security. n

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