RFID Passport Chips: What are They?

RFID passport chips are computer chips that emit radio signals allowing authorized users to access the information stored on the chips. They were first introduced in 2007 when the government began issuing e-passports to U.S. citizens after passing legislation requiring countries participating in the Visa Waiver Program to issue e-passports to their citizens. The Visa Waiver Program allows citizens of participating countries to visit the United States for 90 days or less without obtaining a visa.

In 2008, the government began issuing passport cards to facilitate travel by land and sea between the United States and Mexico, Canada, Bermuda and the Caribbean. All passport cards also contain RFID chips. While both passport cards and passport books have these chips embedded in them, there are some differences in the way the chips are used.

Passport Cards

RFID passport chips embedded in passport cards do not contain any personal information about the holder of the card. Instead they contain a unique identification number that links to a record stored in a government database, which contains photographs and other biographical information about the card holder. The chip allows authorized officials to quickly access the stored record and conduct automated checks of terrorist watch lists as individuals approach security checkpoints. In addition, multiple cards can be read simultaneously. Because officials don’t have to wait until travelers arrive at the inspection station to check their information and they can access multiple cards at the same time, immigration inspections are faster.

Amid concerns about individuals’ privacy and the security of the passport card, the U.S. government has taken several steps to prevent individuals’ personal information from being accessed without their permission. Laser engraving and additional security features are designed to prevent passport cards from being counterfeited, and they come with a protective sleeve to prevent RFID passport chips from being read without authorization. As long as the passport card is in the sleeve, the information on the chip cannot be accessed.

Passport Books

Unlike the chips embedded in passport cards, the chips embedded in passport books do contain personal information about the passport holder, including:

  • The same information written on the passport, including the holder’s name, date of birth, place of birth, issue date and expiration date
  • A digital image of the individual’s passport photo that can be used with facial recognition technology at security checkpoints
  • A unique identification number
  • A digital signature designed to prevent the data stored on the chip from being altered
  • Like the RFID passport chips in passport cards, they can be read from a short distance and allow for faster inspections at security checkpoints.

    There have been security concerns about the e-passports since the government began issuing them. However, as with the passport cards, the government has taken extensive measures using the most current technology to protect the information stored on the chips in passport books from unauthorized access. First, a blocking material is used on the cover of all e-passports that require the book to be opened before the information stored on the RFID chip can be read.

    Second, technological protocols have been put into place to ensure that only authorized RFID readers can access the information stored on the chips embedded in e-passports. Third, a random unique identification number (UID) is generated each time someone attempts to access the information on the chip. Finally when someone accesses the information on RFID passport chips, it is compared with the information that is printed on the passport to make sure they match. The government has taken every precaution to ensure that the information stored on the chip does not inadvertently fall into the wrong hands.

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