The State Department yesterday issued final rules for implanting electronic identification chips into all U.S. passports, despite continuing controversy over the security of the system and its impact on personal privacy.
The regulations mean that as of October 2006, all new and renewed U.S. passports will contain radio frequency identification chips that will include a digital photo and all other information currently printed in passports.
Over time, as older passports expire, everyone who holds a passport will get an electronic version.
Government employee and diplomatic passports will receive the chips in a pilot program beginning early next year.
In issuing the new rules, the department is matching a requirement it is imposing on visitors from several other countries. Foreigners from countries who do not need visas to enter the United States also must have the chips by next October. Such countries will be responsible for providing their citizens with passports that comply with U.S. entry requirements.
A spokeswoman said the department is convinced the electronic passports will provide enhanced security.
But in a federal filing, the department said that 98.5 percent of the 2,335 comments it received since it issued proposed rules last spring opposed the program.
Technology experts have said that the data on the chips, which will be read at a short distance by electronic devices in a passport-control booth, could be electronically intercepted and potentially misused.
Some privacy groups also fear that the chips could be a prelude to tracking individuals' movements.
Other security experts said the system is not robust enough, noting that digital photographs can have high error rates compared with actual faces. These experts said the system should instead use a biometric identifier such as fingerprints.
The new rules seek to address some of the concerns.
According to the filing, the passports will be equipped with "anti-skimming" technology to reduce the chance of the signal being intercepted between the passport and the electronic reader.
The chip itself will be embedded in the back cover of a newly designed passport, and the anti-skimming film will be in both the front and back covers, reducing the chance of interception when someone is standing in a passport line.
According to the filing, the passport needs to be within inches of the reader in order to work.
The department rejected calls to encrypt, or scramble, the data on the passport. Instead, the transmission stream when the data is passing from the passport to the reader will be encrypted.
The department also rejected some calls for using a smart-card-type chip that must come into contact with the reader, as opposed to a radio frequency identification chip that can be read at a distance. The department said smart-card chips do not lend themselves to being put into a book-like document such as a passport.
The chips will have enough memory so additional biometric information could be added in the future.
But the department said it has no plans to include personal information such as Social Security numbers on the chips.
Ari Schwartz, associate director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, a digital-policy group, said he had not yet studied the department filing.
But he said it was a "risky strategy" without first testing the system on a large scale.