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.
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
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.
government continues to issue traditional passports, it expects to
convert to e-passports nationwide within 12 to 14
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.
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
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
"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
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.
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
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.
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.
controversy that continues to swirl around the use of the embedded
RFID chip in each passport, Portell said he had received only one
"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."
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
the conversion to e-passport processing will be largely complete by
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
According to a
recent State Dept. release, new readers were installed last month
at San Francisco Airport.
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
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
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].