Moss: E-passports offer long-term improvements

Nearly a year after their debut on the national stage, the State Department's electronic passports should be considered a success despite long wait times in obtaining them and assertions that they are not being widely scanned by authorities, said a former State Department official.

The e-passport "is a better system with a more modern design and better security features," Frank E. Moss, former deputy assistant secretary of State for passport services, told Washington Technology. "It is absolutely a success."

Moss, who retired in late 2006, was closely involved in the decision to include an embedded short-range radio frequency identification chip in the e-passport, and also was involved in developing the planned Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative passport card with the Homeland Security Department. He currently is a consultant with Identity Matters LLC of Washington.

When e-passports began production in October 2006, the State Department was prepared to produce up to 16 million e-passports a year, up from 7 million a year in 2003, Moss said. But demand for the e-passports dramatically soared to more than 17 million due to new requirements of the Western Hemisphere initiative that went into effect for air travel in January 2007, he said.

Under the Western Hemisphere initiative, millions of U.S. travelers need to show passports for re-entry into the U.S. As a result, in recent months, there has been up to a 12-week waiting period for new passports, about twice as long as a year ago for the old paper passports.

"Unfortunately, I think it is fair to say that demand was greater than expected," Moss said.

At the same time, it should be recognized that the State Department did make substantial investments from 2003 to 2006 to more than double its passport production capacity, he added.

While millions of the e-passports have been issued to date, very few of the cards are being scanned electronically by readers within the U.S., according to a recent report from the Government Accountability Office. Currently, the readers are available at only 33 major airports, and in those locations they are being utilized only for foreign visitors, the GAO said. U.S. citizens use different lanes for passport processing that generally do not have readers, the report concluded.

Nonetheless, Moss said, the U.S. e-passports are often being scanned at foreign airports, and as more e-passports begin to circulate there will be additional readers installed. From his own experiences, Moss believes the U.S. e-passports are scanned electronically within the U.S. on occasion.

"I am the bearer of the first e-passport," Moss said. "I have had my passport read electronically abroad and within the U.S." Most recently, he said, his e-passport was scanned in Frankfurt, Germany.

However, he acknowledges that in most places, the e-passport is not truly being used electronically with its full functionality. Nonetheless, he said, it will continue moving toward full functionality as more readers are installed, and is likely to add new features in the coming years.

Overall, the new e-passport is more secure than the paper variety of past years, he said. For example, in past years, a person committing fraud might substitute his own photograph within a stolen passport. With the e-passport, that type of fraud is impossible because the digital photograph of the original bearer is stored directly on the card. The inspector can easily examine whether the person holding the e-passport resembles the image in the digital photograph.

"The e-passport has made a significant impact in improving security," Moss said.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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