GPO issues contracts for e-passports

The Government Printing Office has issued two contracts to producers of contactless smart chips to furnish large-scale quantities of electronic passport covers.

The contracts follow months of testing, policy disputes and legal wrangling over the use of contactless smart chips to embed biometric and biographic data in passport covers. Wide-scale adoption of the State Department's version of the technology likely will influence other federal programs which will involve biometric ID systems.

A source close to the program confirmed that Infineon Technologies North America Corp. is providing chips, antennas and inlays being used in current pilot U.S. e-passport production. Gemalto Inc. of Washington has qualified to provide samples for further pilot production, the source said.

The federal source added that Gemalto and Infineon are the only two companies left in the competition to provide the e-passport components, which formerly involved several prospective vendors.

The two companies provide passport book covers that contain an inlay which, in turn, holds the chip and antenna.

Neville Pattinson, director of marketing and government affairs for Gemalto, said his company would provide the covers from production facilities in Owings Mills, Md. The passport covers come three to a sheet and are subject to 100 percent inspection, he said.

When GPO receives the passport cover blanks, the agency adds a 'Faraday box' feature, likely a piece of metal film, to block radio queries to the chip, several sources said. Such unauthorized radio contacts are called 'skimming.'

GPO will also print the passport covers. The federal government issued some 10 million passports in 2005 and is on track to provide 13 million passports this year, sources said.

Gemalto is prepared to begin large-scale deliveries within a matter of a few weeks. When GPO launches full-scale electronic passport issuance, Jan. 1, 2007, Gemalto will be prepared to provide millions of passport cover blanks, Pattinson said.

The new contracts for production-scale quantities of e-passport covers are known as EP 2000 pacts, Pattinson said.

Gemalto and other backers of its contactless smart-chip technology point to its use in passports as proof that it is superior to the simpler, nonsecure radio-frequency identification device technology under consideration for the People Access Security Service ID card.

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