Documents Show U.S. Ignored Security and Privacy Warnings On Passports; Decisions Will Leave Americans Vulnerable to Violence, ID Theft, ACLU Says

November 24, 2004 12:00 am

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NEW YORK — The Bush Administration spurned warnings by privacy and security experts and foreign governments when pushing new remotely readable biometric passports, according to State Department documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union. Because of the U.S. action, passports issued to Americans in coming years will contain Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) chips that will broadcast all the personal information on a passport to anyone who comes within range with an RFID reader.

“What the documents show is that the U.S. government was repeatedly told that these passports would pose significant threats to our privacy and safety,”said Barry Steinhardt, Director of the ACLU’s Technology and Liberty Program. “Yet the US chose to use all of its power to sweep aside the objections raised by our allies and force through a standard that leaves Americans vulnerable to identity thieves and terrorists.”

The U.S. passports, which are currently being bid out for contracts and will contain a face-recognition biometric as well as the RFID chips, are being designed in accordance with a standard developed by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). It was during the process of developing that standard that the United States fought – and won – a battle to spurn security protections for these passports despite the warnings of security experts and the objections of other governments.

“It is shocking that the American government fought against basic security and privacy protections such as encryption for these wide-open passports,” said Laura W. Murphy, Director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office. “The U.S.-backed standard means that all the information on American passports can be read by anyone with an RFID reader, whether they are an identity thief, a terrorist trying to spot the Americans in a room or a government agent looking to vacuum up the identities of everyone at a political rally, gun show or mosque.”

The ACLU issued a brief white paper that provides a guided tour through the highlights of the documents, which the organization obtained from the State Department through a Freedom of Information Act request.

“The ACLU and other groups made repeated efforts to participate in the secretive ICAO standard-setting process, but we were ignored and excluded,” Steinhardt said. “These new documents are our only window into this closed and secretive process. And unfortunately, they confirm our worst suspicions about the role of the American government, which has been pushing so many anti-privacy measures in the global arena recently.”

To read the ACLU’s white paper and key documents on the passport-standard development process, go to:

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