Smooth sailing: Denver office debuts first e-passport branch

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DENVER -- State Dept. officials, having issued just over 33,000 of the new electronic passports in the past six weeks, are gearing up to help meet next year's demand for 12 million of the new travel documents.

E-passports look much like traditional U.S. passports, but they contain an RFID (radio frequency identification) chip that contains digital information about the passport holder. The information is read by a special decoder.

The new passport has been controversial because of opposition from some security experts who question the strength of its encryption technologies and by civil libertarians who warn that it could encroach on the privacy of citizens.

While the government continues to issue traditional passports, it expects to convert to e-passports nationwide within 12 to 14 months.

On Aug. 14, Colorado became the first regional passport office to begin issuing the new documents. Officials here say that, so far, the changeover has gone flawlessly.

"We've had no problems of note," said Sherman Portell, assistant regional director for the Colorado passport office.

The Denver facility opened a year ago last month, winning the right to be the trial office for the new process, which uses electronic printers, sophisticated software that links the office to databases in Washington and other technology allowing staff in a passport office to quickly verify identify information and produce the passports in a day.

The passports are printed, the RFID chips are populated with digital information and photos are attached in a secure environment with a small staff, reducing the wait time in most cases by weeks.

Portell said he has heard few complaints on privacy issues from the thousands of passport holders already processed. He added that he was pleased with the speed and efficiency of passport distribution and said travelers could be confident that the new technology was secure.

"It is much easier to forge, say, a Mexican or a Japanese passport than it is the new American e-passports," Portell said. "These are now the most secure travel documents anywhere in the world."

 

Laura Tischler, a spokeswoman for the State Dept.'s office of Consular Affairs, said 17 processing locations eventually will be issuing e-passports. The next will be the Washington office, which is expected to begin processing e-passports in mid-November.

Among the groups opposing e-passport technology is the American Civil Liberties Union, which cites privacy concerns and increased vulnerability to identity theft.

State Dept. officials say they have worked out the bugs in the system, listened to complaints and made changes in the technology that resolved most, if not all, security concerns.

"The e-passport program went through a very thorough rulemaking process, and at various points people were able to submit comments, Tischler said. "They did raise security and privacy issues about the RFID chips, and as early as 2003 we started looking again at how we were building the e-passports. In response to concerns we added features, including access control and electronic shielding, and we feel we have mitigated the concerns."

The ACLU, in an e-mail exchange published by the Wall Street Journal late last month, continued to question the program and its viability.

Portell said that at its busiest, the Colorado office handles 125 people per day. Applicants bring identification documents and photos to a bank of customer service windows.

During the off-season, August through March, the Denver office serves about 50 people per day at walk-up windows. Most need travel documents quickly, either for emergency family matters outside the country or for other unexpected travel.

The center is also handling passports sent in from post offices around the region and from mail-in applications.

Despite the controversy that continues to swirl around the use of the embedded RFID chip in each passport, Portell said he had received only one complaint.

"A man came in convinced that we were putting GPS information in his passport so that we could track his movements," Portell said. "I told him, no, that was not happening."

While some applicants say they are aware of the technology controversy, most people are simply interested in getting their passports as quickly and easily as possible, Portell said. And the new system speeds up the process considerably.

"We get some people who actually drive or fly to Colorado to obtain their documents quickly," Portell said.

"We had a man drive here from El Paso, Texas, just the other day. Some people get out to Denver International and find their child's passport has expired, and they come here directly from the airport, and we expedite that for them."

The majority of passport applications, about 80%, are still being taken at U.S. post offices and by clerks in court offices around the country. Many people whose passports are about to expire continue to apply for the standard passports that do not carry the RFID technology.

Officials said the conversion to e-passport processing will be largely complete by mid-2007.

State Dept. officials referred questions to U.S. Customs on how many entry ports are now equipped with the electronic readers to handle e-passports. But calls to the Customs and Border Patrol office were not returned.

According to a recent State Dept. release, new readers were installed last month at San Francisco Airport.

State Dept. officials said they had already notified foreign embassies about what the new passports will look like, in part because they are dramatically different -- at least inside -- from what border agents are accustomed to seeing.

Pages in the new passports carry images of the Statue of Liberty, Mount Rushmore, scenes of the American West and other drawings. The images are hard to duplicate by forgers, officials said. Attempts to remove or alter digital photographs, already in use in older passports, are easily detected and will prevent forgery, according to the State Dept.

As for privacy, the RFID chips don't contain any information that is not printed on the passport itself, Portell said.

In addition to better security, the use of  electronic readers, which will eventually be in place at all ports of entry, will speed up the process of verifying that the persons submitting the documents are who they say they are, officials said.

Portell said that several weeks ago, when the new passports were first being distributed, his office received a call channeled from a small border patrol station in Canada, where a customs agent expressed doubt that one of the new e-passports was legitimate.

But Tischler said border stations in the U.S. have all been fully briefed now on the new documents.

"Tourists should not have worry about their e-passports being recognized as official from here on out," she said.

To contact reporter Dan Luzadder, send e-mail to [email protected].

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