US to add RF-ID to passports by October 2004

Frank Moss, US deputy assistant secretary for Passport Services, announced at the recent Smart Card Alliance meeting that production of new smart-card enabled passports will begin by October 26, 2004. Current plans call for a contactless smart chip based on the ISO 14443 standard, which was originally designed for the payments industry. The 14443 standard supports a data exchange rate of about 106 kilobytes per second, much higher than that of the widely-deployed Speedpass system.

The Enhanced Border Security Act and Visa Entry Reform Act of 2002 requires that countries in the US visa waiver program include machine-readable biometric data. This new passport project would update US passports to meet that standard as well. Moss says the goal is global interoperability, and plans to adopt standards from the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). The EU recently made a similar announcement.

The new passports would encode cryptographically signed copies of the passport photo and passport information, making such information more difficult to forge. Moss did not mention the use of biometric data not currently included on US passports, such as fingerprints or retinal scans, though The Register suggests that the EU is looking into these systems as well. Given that the ICAO has not yet ruled out such additional biometrics it is probably too soon to tell, though the current ICAO blueprint does favor face images over fingerprint or retinal-scan technology.