Rules for RFID chips in US passports

Toothbrush, travel soap, clean underwear, new passport?

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OUT-LAW News, 26/10/2005 The US State Department on Tuesday set out rules that will govern the use of radio frequency identification (RFID) chips in US passports. The passports, which will be piloted from December, are due to be issued in the US from October 2006, according to reports.

RFID chips consist of a microchip and a tiny antenna that transmits data from the chip to a reader. The reader is activated whenever the antenna comes into range and the data can be used to trigger an event – such as ringing up a purchase, ordering more stock or, in this case, providing identification details to border control officials.

The new plans are the latest stage of the US administration’s campaign to increase internal security, and will complement requirements that EU citizens, who are currently entitled to enter the US without a visa, will be obliged to obtain a visa from October next year unless they hold a biometrically-enabled passport.

The system is designed to follow the biometric standardisation developed by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) – a UN-level body that acts on behalf of governments to create international standards for airline navigation, safety and security – in 2003. This provides that the initial international biometric standard for passports is facial mapping, although additional biometrics such as fingerprinting can be included.

But there have been difficulties in developing the technology quickly, and the US has decided to preempt matters by insisting that all US passports issued from next October contain an RFID chip, to which fingerprints or iris scans can be added later.

The chip, according to reports, will contain the usual details printed in the passport, together with a digital photograph.

In order to counter fears that the chipped passports will allow holders to be tracked or to fall prey to identity thieves, the State Department has announced that the covers of the passport will contain an anti-skimming device to block casual access. It also proposes a security system that will ensure that the chips only provide the data to recognised readers.

Meanwhile, EU citizens will find it more difficult to enter the US as from today – the date from which passports issued in the EU must contain a digital photograph if their holders wish to be able to enter the US without a visa. Passports issued before today will still be valid for visa-less entry.

According to reports, the requirement is likely to affect travellers from France, Italy and Austria, countries which have not yet put the appropriate systems fully in place. The UK Passport Office is already able to issue passports containing a digital photo.

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