DHS begins deploying e-passport readers

The Homeland Security Department has installed radio frequency identification device readers capable of receiving data from electronic passports at San Francisco International Airport, the department said.

Officials from the department's U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology program said the program is on track to meet Congress' Oct. 26 deadline for fielding the readers at ports of entry.

The newly installed units will be able to compare and authenticate data in the e-passports issued by the State Department and countries participating in the Visa Waiver Program.

Travelers holding passports from the 27 VWP countries are allowed to enter the country without a visa. U.S. law requires the passport authorities in those countries to launch a program to roll out passports meeting certain biometric requirements, which can be satisfied by either RFID devices or specified photographs, to maintain their membership in the program as of Oct. 26.

The 27 VWP countries generally are areas with strong economies whose nationals pose little risk of overstaying the period they are allowed to visit.

"An e-Passport securely identifies the individual, defends against identity theft, protects privacy and makes it difficult for individuals to cross borders using fraudulent documents," the department said in a brief statement.

U.S. Visit program officials will oversee continuing deployment of the e-passport readers during the next few weeks, DHS said.

The State Department began rolling out e-passports for new passport applicants earlier this year, after first providing them to diplomats and other officials.

DHS reportedly plans to install the reader units at about 30 major ports of entry accounting for the majority of border traffic.

The e-passport program has been beset by controversy over RFID security. State Department officials modified their original passport design to include a thin metal component that serves as a barrier to the escape of radio frequency emissions that could be intercepted, after privacy advocates demonstrated the risks involved. The RFID chips include other security features such as "basic access control," a method of encrypting the transmissions between the document and the reader.

The Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act of 2002 mandated that Visa Waiver Program countries establish biometric passport plans by 2004. Congress extended that deadline twice, most recently in May 2005, in response to requests by the State Department.

Wilson P. Dizard III is a staff writer for Washington Technology's sister publication, Government Computer News.

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