While the U.S. State Department prepares to switch over to passports that include embedded data chips, privacy experts worry the new technology will open Americans to identity theft and fraud.

New passports will be fitted with chips using RFID, or radio frequency identification, technology. Reader devices at borders and customs checkpoints will be able to read the information stored on the chip, including the person’s name, address and digital photo.

Kelly Shannon is a spokesperson for the State Department.

She told Wired News: “The reason we are doing this is that it simply makes passports more secure. It’s yet another layer beyond the security features we currently use to ensure the bearer is the person who was issued the passport originally.”

RFID technology has been used for tracking everything from store inventory to family members visiting an amusement park. It is also used in the Digital Angel human implant that recently was approved by the FDA for storing medical information.

Wired reports civil libertarians and some technologists say the passport chips are actually a boon to identity thieves, stalkers and commercial data collectors, since anyone with the proper reader can download a person’s biographical information and photo from several feet away.

“Even if they wanted to store this info in a chip, why have a chip that can be read remotely?” Barry Steinhardt, who directs the American Civil Liberty Union’s Technology and Liberty program, asked Wired. “Why not require the passport be brought in contact with a reader so that the passport holder would know it had been captured? Americans in the know will be wrapping their passports in aluminum foil.”

Last week, the government contracted with four companies to develop the chips and readers for the program. The report stated diplomats and State Department employees will be issued the new passports as early as January, while others applying for new passports will receive the new version starting in the spring.

Electronic Frontier Foundation attorney Lee Tien told Wired RFID chips in passports are a “privacy horror” and would be even if the data were encrypted, which it isn’t.

“If 180 countries have access to the technology for reading this thing, whether or not it is encrypted, from a security standpoint, that is a very leaky system,” Tien said. “Strictly from a technology standpoint, any reader system, even with security, that was so widely deployed and accessible to so many people worldwide will be subject to some very interesting compromises.”

An engineer and RFID expert with Intel claims there is little danger of unauthorized people reading the new passports. Roy Want told the newssite: “It is actually quite hard to read RFID at a distance,” saying a person’s keys, bag and body interfere with the radio waves.

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