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US electronic passport program takes effect

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This week the United States began issuing passports embedded with 'smart chips;' small memory chips that can be read with computer scanners that have information about the person who holds the passport encrypted on them. The initial version will have mostly data that is already on the passports, such as name, identification number and photograph.

Some people have concerns about the privacy of the data, and other concerns over possible misuse by official and non-official persons. Recently it was demonstrated that the chips can be 'cloned,' meaning that exact copies of them can be made.

While the actual security has not been seriously breeched at this time, the demonstration proved that a strong possibility for forging the passports exists and is even likely in the future.

However, it should be noted that the electronic passports, or ePassports (sometimes e-passports), are far more secure than previous passports. Counterfeiting an ePassport has not yet been accomplished and would be an extremely difficult task.

The ePassports are also a taste of new electronic visas. The U.S. is just the latest country to begin issuing these. The United Kingdom and Germany, for examples, are two western nations that have already begun. Plans are to roll out visas and national identity cards also embedded with RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) memory chips. The European Union is considering plans for an "EU passport" for travel within the EU, which will likely be designed based upon what works in these current programs.

The key to these chips is that they require no power by themselves to store information. A reading device sends radio waves to the chip, which provide enough power to read the data and then view it on computers.

Originally the data was not encrypted, but that policy was quickly changed and the data is now encrypted.

The chips can store a fair amount of information, and as technology progresses, they will be able to store even more. Currently, they can store all general personal information, such as name and identification number, as well as biometric data. Biometric data can be as mundane as a photograph, but three-dimensional facial scans, fingerprint scans, iris scans, and even DNA data are all possible.

This would make it impossible for a person to use another person's passport, visa, green card, or national identity card. Copying the data, such as the cloning demonstration, doesn't help very much. It would actually need to be decrypted and replaced with different data for a person to pose with the identification of another.

The United States has plans to place RFID chips into visas, very similar to a British program announced last week that will do so with all UK visas during the next 18 months. Greencards in the U.S. will also have these chips, possibly even requiring people on multiple-entry, permanent visas to give a fingerprint scan each time they re-enter the U.S.

In general, the cost of passports, visas and various documents using this technology will cost more. Britain recently raised the cost of their passports by £15 for most categories. In the U.S. a similar increase of about $22 USD has also been added to these passports.


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