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Rules for RFID chips in US passports

The US State Department on Tuesday set out rules that will govern the use of radio frequency identification (RFID) chips in US passports. The passports, which will be piloted from December, are due to be issued in the US from October 2006, according to reports.26 Oct 2005

RFID chips consist of a microchip and a tiny antenna that transmits data from the chip to a reader. The reader is activated whenever the antenna comes into range and the data can be used to trigger an event – such as ringing up a purchase, ordering more stock or, in this case, providing identification details to border control officials.

The new plans are the latest stage of the US administration’s campaign to increase internal security, and will complement changes to the Visa Waiver Program, which allows the citizens of 27 countries, including the UK and 14 other EU Member States, to enter the US without a visa.

The system is designed to follow the biometric standardisation developed in 2003 by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) – a UN-level body that acts on behalf of governments to create international standards for airline navigation, safety and security. This provides that the initial international biometric standard for passports is facial mapping, although additional biometrics such as fingerprinting can be included.

But there have been difficulties in developing the technology quickly, and the US has decided to pre-empt matters by insisting that all US passports issued from next October contain an RFID chip, to which fingerprints or iris scans can be added later.

The chip, according to reports, will contain the usual details printed in the passport, together with a digital photograph.

In order to counter fears that the chipped passports will allow holders to be tracked or fall prey to identity thieves, the State Department has announced that the covers of the passport will contain an anti-skimming device to block casual access. It also proposes a security system that will ensure that the chips only provide the data to recognised readers.

Meanwhile, citizens from the 27 Visa Waiver countries will need a digital photograph in their passports or an integrated chip with information from the data page if getting a new passport from today, otherwise they will need a visa. Existing passports that are machine-readable will still be valid for US entry without a visa.

Is your passport machine readable?

A British passport is machine readable when there are two lines of letters, numbers and chevrons () printed across the long edge of the page with the photograph and personal details. The machine-readable text will appear on a white strip on older passports and directly on the pink page of newer passports. If there are no such lines of text on the personal information page, the passport is not machine-readable.

The UK Passport Office is already able to issue passports containing a digital photo. According to reports, the new requirement is likely to affect travellers from France, Italy and Austria, countries which have not yet put the appropriate systems fully in place.

Travelling to the US will be complicated still further next year, when travellers under the Visa Waiver Program holding passports issued after 26th October 2006 will only be allowed entry without a visa if that passport contains an embedded chip.