The African Union unveiled its new e-passport initiative earlier this month. If all goes well, these next-generation passports will be issued to all AU citizens by 2018. As Jules Suzdaltsev explains in today's Seeker Daily dispatch, the AU announcement marks another major milestone for the technology.
Most countries have already rolled out e-passport systems -- the U.S. started in 2006 -- and the technology has actually been around for a couple of decades now. Also called digital passports or biometric passports, these 21st-century documents contain embedded computer chips that store basic identification information.
At a minimum, the chips store the cardholder's name, physical appearance and date of birth. More advanced systems include additional biometric information like digital photographs, fingerprints and even iris patterns. The idea is to prevent identity fraud and protect privacy.
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However, as with so many other things digital these days, security and privacy may not be as secure or private as we'd hoped. Soon after the U.S. announced its e-passport initiative, the ACLU issued a formal opposition statement. The civil liberties group argued that even if the system prevents traditional identity fraud, the non-encrypted data on the chip could lead to different kinds of identity fraud.
More recent incidents suggest that, even absent malicious intent, e-passports can be a problem. For example, an investigation of Britain's airports in 2010 revealed that e-passport readers and biometric scanners had mistakenly cleared multiple persons on watch lists that would have otherwise been flagged. In 2011, a couple made it all the way through security even though they'd accidentally switched passports on the way in.
With the African Union, however, the change toward e-passports is less about security and more about efficiency. Proponents of the new system contend that it will better facilitate travel between African nations, improving internal trade on the continent and strengthening vulnerable economies.
In any case, e-passports are quickly becoming the international norm as officials try to find the proper balance between privacy, efficiency and security -- the perpetual juggling act of the Digital Age.
-- Glenn McDonald
Homeland Security: e-Passports
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