All U.S. passports issued since June 2007 are electronic passports, or epassports, which have advanced digital security features. All epassports have a small gold logo printed on the cover. (See illustration at right)
The epassport is based on a contactless smart card chip embedded in the cover. Think of it as a computer with special security software inside your passport. Contactless refers to the fact that it is a wireless device, but it can only communicate over very short distances of an inch or two.
U.S. epassports do not use RFID tags (Radio Frequency IDentification), which are used mostly for simple insecure object-related identification and tracking such as the whereabouts of warehouse palets and products.
How epassports work ?
The contactless smart card chip securely stores information and uses its computer to provide enhanced security that protects the privacy and safety of the passport holder.
When the government makes the epassport book it places a digital version of the identifying information printed inside-including the photograph-on the epassport chip. The information is "signed" using a type of electronic seal, called a digital signature which stops any alteration of the stored electronic data..
Passport terminals at border control communicate with the epassport chip and check the "seal" to prove that the passport was issued by the U.S. government and that the information stored in the chip has not been changed.
Several other U.S. epassport security features prevent anyone from "skimming" or reading data out of the passport without you knowing it, say by standing next to you with a special reader, for example.
1. There is a radio frequency shield in the passport cover, so it cannot be read or even detected by any reading device when it is closed.
2. The epassport chip is "locked" with a key that is unique to each epassport. The border agent must first physically open your passport book to get the printed key to access the chip's stored information.
3. The smart card chip encrypts, or scrambles, the data before transmitting it to the passport terminal, making the information useless to any eavesdropper.
4. The epassport chip only communicates over very short distances of one or two inches once it has been opened and unlocked.
A more secure travel document
The epassport is a far more secure travel document than a traditional paper passport because it provides an additional way of authenticating the printed information with an sealed electronic copy.
It is virtually impossible to counterfeit an epassport, because no one can duplicate the authentic U.S. digital seal on the electronic data. Furthermore, any change to the chip information breaks the seal, so tampering is evident to a border agent. If stolen, your passport picture could be replaced by a fraudulent one on the printed data page, but the digital copy of your picture on the chip can't be changed without detection.
The sealed digital photograph ensures that you, as the bearer of the passport, are indeed the person to whom it was issued. At passport control, border agents can compare the person, the printed page and the chip information. These all have to match to confirm the identity of the person presenting the passport.
Four things to remember about the epassport
- Based on smart card technology
- Virtually impossible to counterfeit
- Far more secure travel document than a traditional paper only passport
- Built-in digital security protects your privacy and safety