U.S. Passports Move into a New Era

Washington – The U.S. Department of State began issuing electronic passports – e-passports – to the American public August 14 as another step in an ongoing program to enhance border security and to facilitate travel.

The new generation of passports includes biometric technology, a computer chip that contains the same data as those found on the biographic data page of the passport.  Those data include name, gender, date and place of birth, and the passport’s issue and expiration dates. The chip also includes a digital image of the bearer’s photograph.

The document is scanned by border officials when the bearer presents it, and the data in the document are matched against that stored away in databases. Its design also is intended to defy forgery and falsification.

In a Washington File interview earlier in 2006, State Department Consular Affairs spokeswoman Laura Tischler said the United States is leading global efforts to ensure the e-passport "is a secure, globally interoperable document that meets [international] standards."

The International Civil Aviation Organization has devised standards for the making of passports in the digital age, and most nations now are redesigning their documents to comply with that standard.

Discussing the benefits of the e-passport, Tischler said the document prevents fraud and protects identity.  "[I]f stolen, it makes it incredibly difficult for someone else to use your passport.  [The e-passport] gives border inspectors a new tool to verify you are the person to whom a given government issued that document," she said.

The new U.S. e-passport also is designed to protect the privacy of the bearer, Tischler said. “The information contained on the integrated circuit embedded in the passport will not provide a means to track U.S. citizens.  This information will be used only in identity verification at ports of entry during travel."

To prevent data written to the chip from being susceptible to unauthorized reading, Tischler said that “anti-skimming” shielding material has been incorporated in the passports front cover. That material prevents the chip from being read when the passport book is closed, she said.

Additional information on the U.S. electronic passport is available on the State Department Web site.