U.S. State Dept. to test RFID-enabled passports

* U.S. to trial passports with RFID chips encoded with holders' facial features

There have been a lot of stories, both in the tech press and from general news sources, about the coming wave of biometric-enabled passports and national identity cards. We've devoted quite a few issues to these topics over the past few years, but implementations will now start to arrive - as early as this fall.

The U.S. Department of State will roll out a trial run of the new passports in the fall. These will feature radio frequency identification (RFID) chips encoded with the facial features of the passport holder.

Many European countries will also begin testing RFID-enabled passports about the same time and eventually all countries issuing passports will have to follow suit, according to the rules adopted by International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). Some countries, such as The Netherlands, will also include fingerprint data on the chip although that isn't a requirement.

The U.S. had initially declared that all countries in Europe and Asia, whose citizens did not require visas to visit the U.S., would have to have biometric-enabled passports by this fall. That turned out to be wishful thinking, as the huge numbers of passports involved would tax the resources of most industrialized nations. Congress has indicated a willingness to extend this deadline an additional two years.

There'll be quite a bit of smoke and noise before the issue is finally settled and we're all carrying the new passports, though. Already the usual privacy groups have objected to the use of RFID chips, which would carry the passport data. They raise the specter of someone walking through an airport collecting passport data from unsuspecting travelers. Of course, the chips would be strongly encrypted to prevent this.

The one factor that puzzles me, though, is that you'll still be able to mail in your passport application along with the standard two pictures. The picture's data will be encoded into the chip that will be placed in the passport mailed back to you. When you tender the passport to an immigration officer, she'll also scan your face and compare the scan to the data on the chip. So my point is, while the face may match the picture on the passport and the data on the chip - why should we believe that it also corresponds to the identity listed in the passport? Perhaps I'm missing a step, or perhaps the State Department will need to change their procedures once the trial period starts. I'll keep following the story and let you know how it turns out.

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