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Article Launched: 08/15/2006 01:00:00 AM MDT
nation | world
"E-passport" debuts in Colorado
By Bruce Finley
Denver Post Staff Writer
The federal government Monday rolled out new electronic passports embedded with radio microchips holding personal data - starting in Colorado.
State Department officials plan to issue millions of the thicker, redesigned blue "e-passports" nationwide by year's end. They say these will speed security checks and thwart forgers who could use fake documents to hurt the United States.
Privacy advocates questioned the necessity, warning that personal data could be skimmed.
But the first travelers granted new passports - at the State Department's new Colorado Passport Agency north of Cherry Creek Reservoir - reluctantly embraced the idea.
Anything to "make our skies more safe," said Chris Hart, 34, on his way to Mexico with his bride, Alycia, for a honeymoon.
"As long as it's not in my skin," he said of his chip, "which is probably what's coming next."
The chips slipped into the back covers of new passports hold the same data - such as name, birthplace, birth date, gender and the photograph - that is printed on current paper passports.
The idea is that the chip should make it harder for an imposter to pass through a security checkpoint and for a counterfeiter to forge a U.S. passport.
New scanners at airports will read the chip data while inspectors scrutinize the paper passport and the person who presents it - comparing information to make sure everything lines up.
The chips "will help verify that the person standing in front of the inspector is the person who that passport was issued to," said Ann Barrett, managing director of passport services for the State Department in Washington, D.C.
Forgery hasn't been a major problem in recent years, Barrett acknowledged. In 1998, the State Department introduced digitized photos in passports, which reduced forgery, she said.
Still, this latest move is necessary because forgers "will keep trying," Barrett said. "The longer a security feature is out there, the better the forgers get at it."
Before they can fake existing passports, she said, "we want to add additional features. It's a constant evolution."
Monday's rollout began a phased introduction at 17 regional passport centers around the country that print and issue passports. The Colorado Passport Agency, which opened last year, issues about 4,000 a week.
The U.S. effort parallels a shift to machine-readable passports in 27 countries, mostly in Europe, where passport-holders can visit the United States without a visa.
The changes are happening amid heightened security checks at airports following the thwarting last week of an alleged terrorist plot to blow up passenger planes flying from from Britain to the U.S.
U.S. passports long have been considered one of the premier identity documents, coveted worldwide. The State Department is struggling to meet surging demand driven by rapidly increasing international travel.
Officials said they're on track to issue more passports this year than ever before - 13 million, up from 10 million last year and nearly double the 7 million issued in 2003.
Some 68 million Americans have passports. Those passports without chips will be valid until their expiration date.
Privacy advocates contend chip-embedded passports not only aren't necessary but that they could hurt personal security. The advocates raised concerns with State Department officials, warning that data moving via radio waves could mark American travelers, allowing outsiders with scanners to "skim" their personal data.
"When new technology is used, we have to question whether it is necessary, or just new," said Melissa Ngo, staff counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center, which runs identification and surveillance research in Washington, D.C.
"I don't believe it is necessary. And if you want something to be secure, you don't make it wireless. With wireless transmissions, there's always the chance it can be intercepted."
An anti-skimming shield has been inserted into front covers of the new passports, in addition to anti-tampering sensors, said Sherman Portell, the State Department's assistant regional director of consular affairs in Colorado.
"It'll block somebody trying to read your chip," he said.
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