Feds cheered by SFO’s e-Passport trial

Officials at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security claimed success Tuesday as they wrapped up a trial electronic-passport program at San Francisco International Airport, designed to keep enemies of the state from entering the country using stolen passport information.

E-passport, as the system is called, allows Border Patrol agents to access photos, biographic data and fingerprints of travelers stored on a microchip embedded in a passport, preventing the fraudulent use of stolen passport data by those intent on doing harm to U.S. citizens, Department of Homeland Security spokeswoman Kimberly Weissman said. Officials expect to roll out the program at international airports nationwide Oct. 26, 2006, she said.

“Agents are able to better facilitate border entries and have confidence that their decision to let people in is well-founded,” Weissman said.

The passports of more than 1,900 travelers from Australia, New Zealand and Singapore — the three countries that participated in the trial — were scanned during a three-month pilot that ended April 15, according to the Department of Homeland Security. Los Angeles International first piloted e-Passport last year, Weissman said.

“We are adopting biometric, electronically based, and secure travel documents that are tamper-resistant, yet provide a very convenient way to move back and forth across our borders,” DHS Deputy Secretary Michael Jackson said in a prepared statement.

Because the e-Passport trial was only recently completed, the number of scanning errors committed in reading the 1,938 passports and the amount of time needed to inspect an e-Passport, compared to a standard passport, wasn’t available, Weissman said.

The trial at SFO tested key aspects of e-Passport’s privacy protection meant to prevent strangers from gaining access to personal information by tampering with the microchip or intercepting the radio waves that carry the data, Weiss-man said.

In spite of those precautions, privacy advocates have said current protections don’t go far enough. “The question is, did they try to eavesdrop on the radio transmission from the passport to the [scanner],” said Lee Tien, senior staff attorney for the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier. “Did they simulate an attack?”

According to published reports, a Dutch security company hacked into a similar Dutch e-Passport system last summer, Tien said.

Weissman said the e-Passport trial specifically addressed such concerns. “We are taking those concerns seriously and working closely with privacy advocates,” she said.

More than two dozen “visa waiver program” countries — those whose citizens are not required to obtain a visa to enter the United States — are eventually expected to begin using e-Passport, officials said.

ecarpenter@examiner.com

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