- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 19, 2004

The approaching introduction of electronic passports containing biometric information needs more attention than it is getting. The United States wants them to monitor for terrorists. Other countries, such as England, plan to issue microchipped passports.

Such passports have merit, and dangers. As Privacy International has said, “We are increasingly concerned that the biometric travel document initiative is part and parcel of a larger surveillance infrastructure monitoring the movements of individuals globally.”

In principle, there are two ways to handle electronic passports. In one, information is stored in a microchip embedded in the passport, but nothing is centrally stored regarding the traveler’s identity and movements. For example, my fingerprints might be electronically scanned at the time of issuance of my passport and electronically encoded in the passport. Then, when I pass through immigration at LAX in Los Angeles, I put my hand on a scanner.

The computer checks whether the prints in my passport match those on my hand. No record is kept.

Even so, the information stored in the passport could be copied and stored by any government scanning the passport. Governments could easily build databases on U.S. citizens.

Already, there are suggestions that other sorts of information be stored in passports, such as medical histories, next of kin and contact information. Do I really want Syrian intelligence to know where my children live?

The other type of system involves central databases, where your face scan, fingerprints or retina scan would be stored to check your passport information. To an extent this is already done.

A fellow I know, who makes hunting rifles, was greeted at the airport with, “I see you are an arms dealer.” Note that the screens on which information appears are placed so that you cannot see them.

Electronic passports are supposed to protect against terrorism. However, the technology of identification and tracking for innocent purposes is, in the hands of other governments, the technology of totalitarianism.

Requiring biometric passports will give truly unpleasant countries the right to know much more about you and me than we probably think they have any business knowing. This should not be casually established. It is much harder to get rid of governmental programs than to start them, especially when the government is foreign.

Proposed technology for passports goes beyond the storage of information on a memory chip. Organizations interested in minimizing intrusion into privacy, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation, recently sent a letter to the International Civil Aviation Organization, which advocates electronic passports.

“This is likely to involve the use of radio-frequency identification (RFID) chips. RFID-tagged passports could be secretly read right through a wallet, pocket, backpack or purse by anyone with the appropriate reader device, including marketers, identity thieves, pickpockets, oppressive governments and others.”

This would be a very different thing from today’s passports. Unless you carried your passport in a metal box, you would be trackable. This is the sort of thing that would appeal to some countries. It hasn’t happened yet. It would be an excellent thing to think about carefully before it does happen.

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