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November 26, 2004
ACLU Objects To Passport Modernization

With so many of the 9/11 terrorists able to get through our legal immigration processes, the US government created new requirements for a modernized passport system that would resist counterfeiting and manipulation. The proposed changes include embedding a chip in the cover that can be read at immigration checkpoints and compared to the information inside the passport, allowing border security to catch anyone coming into the US with falsified papers.

However, the ACLU has launched objections to the practice, claiming that the new technology will point out Americans abroad and allow others to "skim" private information from the passport:

Privacy advocates say the new format - developed in response to security concerns after the Sept. 11 attacks - will be vulnerable to electronic snooping by anyone within several feet, a practice called skimming. Internal State Department documents, obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union under the Freedom of Information Act, show that Canada, Germany and Britain have raised the same concern.

"This is like putting an invisible bull's-eye on Americans that can be seen only by the terrorists," said Barry Steinhardt, the director of the A.C.L.U. Technology and Liberty Program. "If there's any nation in the world at the moment that could do without such a device, it is the United States."

The organization wants the State Department to take security precautions like encrypting the data, so that even if it is downloaded by unauthorized people, it cannot be understood.

Unlike many ACLU complaints, this one has some legitimacy. Allowing the chips to contain unencrypted information can fairly be equated to leaving your network password on your office desk -- it creates a security hole so wide as to negate any idea of privacy. Unshielded, these chips can be read as far away as 30 feet, in laboratory conditions, which makes them pretty vulnerable to hand-held devices in areas like airports and government buildings.

However, in this case the fixes are obvious and easy. First, as the article suggests, a layer of foil can be placed between the chip and the front of the passport, which would block any attempts to read the chip while the passport is closed. Another solution would require more work and coordination, but a password for encryption could be placed in the passport itself and optically scanned at the time an authorized agent read the chip. Neither of these solutions should be considered so overwhelming as to scuttle the program entirely.

Other objections make less sense. For instance, the ACLU claims that carrying this chip will identify Americans to terrorists through the use of hand-held readers anywhere abroad: shopping centers, tourist destinations, anywhere where travelers carry their passports. However, the Times article also reports that Australia has begun issuing passports with the same chip technology -- and other countries are expected to follow suit, as it will allow their citizens to avoid the fingerprinting process that the US will require for all travelers on visas.

Even if all of these concerns are addressed, the ACLU plans on fighting these new passport systems as invasions of privacy, which is where I lose all sympathy for their position. The chips will only contain the identification information already on the inside of the passport, which means the chip gives only the ability to verify the integrity of the document. Even if they contain more information than that, the expectation of privacy for people traveling between countries has always been rather low, and after 9/11 is necessarily much lower than that. We set up borders, visas, and entry requirements to keep undesirable elements from entering the country. If we find a better way to identify those elements and keep them from gaming the system, then let's do it.

We simply cannot afford to allow the ACLU to hijack security upgrades in our immigration processes. They are correct to point out the potential failings of the new system, which should be corrected. But if they intend on offering objection after objection just to stall any positive action on passports, then their input should be rejected outright.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at November 26, 2004 6:54 AM

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