- The Washington Times - Monday, September 25, 2006

On Aug. 14, the State Department began issuing U.S. passports that for the first time incorporate biometric and electronic technology. These “e-passports” are an important tool in meeting the department’s missions of enhancing border security and facilitating travel of our citizens.

The September 11 Commission noted that “for terrorists, travel documents are as important as weapons,” because they must travel to meet, plan and case targets for future attacks. To conceal their identities and evade detection, they often use fake, altered or stolen passports. To constrain terrorist mobility and prevent a repeat of the horrors of September 11, the commission recommended that development of a traveler screening system based on biometric passports should be a “fundamental goal” of the United States. The e-passport is part of the department’s commitment to that goal.

The new e-passports also benefit the U.S. traveling public by providing more efficient, accurate review of legitimate travelers. The commission noted that creating a workable biometric screening program would require cooperation with other key countries. We have worked with our international partners to promote development of biometric passports in those countries. Many of the countries where Americans travel for tourism or business are or soon will be issuing e-passports. The U.S. e-passport will ensure U.S. travelers continue to benefit from efficient access to these overseas destinations.

The September 11 Commission predicted that the solution for the new generation of U.S. travel document “is likely to combine radio frequency technology with biometric identifiers.” This is precisely what the e-passport does.

The e-passport incorporates multiple security features. A radio-frequency identification (RFID) chip embedded in the back cover holds the same data as that found on the biographic data page of the passport, including the bearer’s digitized photograph — the standard passport biometric adopted by the International Civil Aviation Association (ICAO). A digital signature locks the information on the chip electronically to prevent modification of the data. Basic Access Control technology ensures that the chip can only be unlocked by an electronic key generated when it is read by special readers at ports of entry.

The e-passport thus provides three data sources to verify that the traveler is the same person to whom the passport was issued: the face of the traveler, the data on the photo page and the data on the chip. The immigration inspector at the border or airport scans the passport and, in a matter of seconds, will be able to confirm the identity of the passport bearer, enabling officials to intercept suspect travelers and speeding the entry of legitimate travelers.

In developing the e-passport, we paid close attention to privacy and identity theft concerns that some U.S. citizens may have about these technologies. We consulted frequently with industry experts in designing the e-passport, and solicited public comments in the Federal Register before beginning production.To prevent the data on the chip from being “skimmed” without the bearer’s knowledge, we added metallic shielding in the front cover and around the spine of the book. Others have raised concerns that the RFID chip might be used to “track” travelers. That risk is countered by incorporating a random, unique ID number into the passport’s chip that changes each time the passport is used. Moreover, and despite reports to the contrary, the chip does not store other sensitive information, such as a traveler’s fingerprints, Social Security Number, bank account or telephone number.

We thoroughly evaluated the e-passport’s electronic components in cooperation with the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology. Next, members of my staff and I tested them in airports around the world before offering it to the public. I can tell you the e-passport meets the tests of security, durability and practicality.

The result is a document that improves U.S. border security by making it much harder for terrorists or criminals to forge, alter or misuse a U.S. passport, and improves traveler screening by making it more efficient for legitimate travelers. It makes the bearer safer, and safeguards his or her privacy. We believe we have created the world’s premier travel document, one that is both technologically advanced and beautiful, with a brand-new design that tells America’s story in words and images. It is a passport Americans can carry with confidence and pride.

In this time of remembrance and reflection, we believe one of the central lessons of the terrible tragedy of September 11 is that the government must spare no expense when it comes to the security of our nation’s citizens. The e-passport is an example of the State Department’s commitment to that lesson. We will continually evaluate the e-passport and make changes as necessary to keep ahead of future developments in technology, to ensure the e-passport remains secure, tamper resistant and globally interoperable.

Ensuring the safety and security of our citizens will always be our highest priority.

Maura Harty is assistant secretary of State for Consular Affairs.

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