RFID passports take off

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“Despite security and privacy concerns, all but three of the countries required by the U.S. to issue passports with radio tags are now doing so, the Department of Homeland Security said Thursday.

Except for Andorra, Brunei and Liechtenstein, all of the 27 countries whose citizens can travel to the U.S. without a visa are now issuing ‘e-Passports,’ the department said in a statement. The passports include a radio frequency identification, or RFID, chip with the holder’s information and a biometric identifier, such as a digital photograph.

The new passports are designed to be harder to forge and to identify the bearer more securely. ‘The upgrade to e-Passports is a significant advance in preventing terrorists from using lost or stolen passports to obtain entry into the United States,’ DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff said in the statement.

RFID tags are being included in passports despite concerns about the holder’s privacy and security . At worst, the chips could let terrorists identify bearers from a distance, which means they could be used as a trigger for explosives, experts have said.

The take-up of the electronic passports is bad news for privacy, said Bruce Schneier, chief technology officer of Counterpane Internet Security. ‘The risk in RFID passports is surreptitious access, and the security measures different countries are taking are varied in their scope and effectiveness,’ he said.

For protection, holders of an electronic passport should guard it well, Schneier suggested. ‘If you’re stuck with one of these passports, use a photocopy whenever you can and keep the real one wrapped in tin foil,’ he said.

The U.S. government has repeatedly dismissed the security and privacy concerns. The passports ‘have critical security features which prevent the unauthorized reading…of data stored on the chip,’ the Department of Homeland Security said Thursday.