After a series of closed meetings, the U.N.-sponsored International Civil Aviation Organization developed an international standard for electronic passports. The standard specifies a passport with an embedded RFID-like electronic chip. Unlike the RFID chips I have recently written about, which basically contain a unique ID, the chip in the passport will be able to store all sorts of information (eventually up to 512KB). The initial information set includes name, date and birthplace, a digital photo and, I expect, the country that issued the passport. The U.S. and a number of other countries are in the process of adopting the standard. As with other RFID chips, the information in the passport chip will be able to be read without the reader having to be in actual contact with the passport. Also, as with other RFID proposals, quite a few people have expressed considerable concern over this remote reading ability, particularly because the data will not be encrypted. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Electronic Frontier Foundation both provided comments to the U.S. State Department on the proposed electronic passport.

One ACLU document uses information it obtained under the Freedom of Information Act to detail how the U.S. government repeatedly argued against adding safeguards to the standard, such as encrypting the data. The U.S. government also repeatedly dismissed concerns of surreptitious scanning of these electronic passports.

What is most chilling is the idea the U.S. government has been actively trying to keep the passports from being secure. In effect, the government has been actively, and with full warning from many sources, trying to ensure that Americans will be at risk when travelling any place where someone might harbour bad feelings toward the U.S. What kind of decision process could possibly have concluded that putting one’s own countrymen at risk was worse than having secure passports? The only thing I can think of is the U.S. government must want to surreptitiously track passport holders from other countries, and the desire to do that outweighed the safety of Americans.

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–Bradner is a consultant with Harvard University’s University Information Systems. He can be reached at

Related links:

RFID needs to be more secure

Getting tagged – Are you ready for the RFID challenge?