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Security and Other Issues with e-Passport Production

Contributed by Joanne Kelleher

This week Bill Gertz at the Washington Times wrote an exclusive series about the Government Printing Office (GPO) and the production of e-Passports. These RFID enabled passports have a computer chip and antenna embedded in the cover so that data can be read from a distance. Here are the highlights of the investigative report:

  • The GPO sought foreign suppliers to help produce the e-Passports, rather then limit to US firms. The computer chips are inserted in the passport cover in Europe, shipped to Thailand and then the RFID antenna is inserted by Smartrac Technology Ltd.
  • Smartrac Technology warned that, in a worst-case scenario, social unrest in Thailand could lead to a halt in production. Smartrac also divulged that China had stolen its patented technology for e-passport chips.
  • GPO had been shipping the passport to the State Department via unsecured FedEx until it was pressured to use an armored car.
  • The GPO is not supposed to be a profit making center. GPO was initially authorized by Congress to make extra profits with the e-Passports in order to fund a $41 million backup production facility.
  • It costs the GPO about $8 to produce the blank passport, but they are selling them to the State Department for about $15. The sales generated an estimated $144 million over the past 16 months, more than $100 million in excess of the project’s needs.
  • The GPO is accused of spending the excess profits on bonuses and trips.
  • GPO staff is concerned that the location of the backup production facility was moved to Mississippi in a Katrina flood zone area. This is the home of then-Senator Trent Lott, the Republican who also was chairman of the congressional committee that oversaw the GPO. The GPO Inspector General recently said the facility is being built without proper authorization procedures.

Three House leaders, including Rep. Bennie Thompson, Mississippi Democrat and chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, and the Government Printing Office’s watchdog are now investigating security concerns about the production of electronic passports.

The State Department are now is investigating whether it is being overcharged for blank electronic passports by the Government Printing Office.

There are so many issues that will need to be addressed at the GPO and this will be in the news for quite some time. I hope that the security implications of producing the primary identity document for this nation outside of our borders don’t get lost in the shuffle of the other problems.

Part 1: Outsourced passports netting govt. profits, risking national security
March 26, 2007

Part 2: GPO profits go to bonuses and trips
March 27, 2008.

Part 3: GPO’s backup plant on Gulf
March 28, 2008

Congress, watchdog probe passport security
March 27, 2008

Washington Times Editorial: A passport to danger
March 28, 2008.

State Department to probe electronic passport charges
March 28, 2008.

1 Comment

  1. RFID_IO on May 2, 2008 at 9:39 am

    Very interesting compilation if info.

    I think that it’s sad to see RFID get a black eye because of our issues around corrupt government.

    RFID in passports has been an ongoing debate for some time now. RFID makes a lot of sense from a border control perspective. It’s just one added layer of security in a multi-factor authentication process. Other than the tag, the paper itself and the clear adhesive layers are still difficult to reproduce. RFID just adds one more barrier to those who think about making fakes.

    On the other hand, I’m not a bitg proponent of RFID in passports because without proper encasement you can easily be targeted as an American in non-allied countries. The info on the passports is meant to be insecure and readable by boarder control all over the world. All it would take is to embed a portal reader in a doorway somewhere and watch Americans pass through.

    For their $15 the Goverment should be asking the manufactureres to provide protective sleeves just like EZ-PASS.