The little blue book that opens doors around the world is about to get a big technological face-lift.
Beginning next year, new U.S. passports will contain a computer chip embedded in the back cover that will store all of the document's printed biographic information plus a digital photograph that authorities say is harder to alter.
The microchip, which won't be noticeable, can be waved in front of a reader without contact -- similar to the E-ZPass toll system -- and will contain enough room to ultimately hold multiple photos or other identifying marks, said Kelly Shannon, spokeswoman for the Bureau of Consular Affairs.
The switch to a computer chip aims to address security concerns raised in the wake of Sept. 11, Shannon said. Although travelers will not be required to replace existing passports, any renewed or new passports issued by mid-2005 will contain the microchip.
The same applies to foreign travelers entering the United States: After September 2005, new passports issued to residents of non-visa countries, such as France or Spain, must contain a chip.
"With the old passport, someone could physically cut into the passport photo," Shannon said. "It's going to make it much more difficult to tamper with. What we're really looking to do is verify more carefully who is traveling."
As with any technological innovation, the new passports will only be as good as those who monitor them, said Daniel Solove, a professor at George Washington University Law School and author of "The Digital Person: Technology and Privacy in the Information Age."
Whether a thief can use someone else's chip will depend on how many points of identification screeners will require at points of entry and departure, Solove said. Moreover, if a document that stores a fingerprint or retina scan is lost or stolen, the identifying mark can be replaced, but Solove said the process will take time.
The changes have been met with resistance from civil rights advocates and legal experts who say the technology brings the country one step closer to a Big Brother future.
Although federal officials stress that the chip will contain the same information currently printed on a passport, the American Civil Liberties Union says it is primarily worried about the non-contact nature of the chip, which raises the possibility that the contents could be read surreptitiously.
"They send out a little radio signal with data on it, which means that anybody with a reader who comes into range of your passport can get all the data off your passport," said Jay Stanley, spokesman for the ACLU's Technology and Liberty Project, which has met with the head of consular affairs. "Theoretically, an FBI agent could walk into a mosque and suck up the identities of anyone in there."
Although the chip can be read only as far away as 10 centimeters, Stanley said it wouldn't take long for black market technology to catch up and for someone to design rogue readers that could pick up information from farther away.
The technology used to create the microchip stems from the rapidly growing field of biometrics, a form of identifying people using physical characteristics, such as a fingerprint or an iris scan. Several states are considering using biometrics on driver's licenses.
A government that collects biometric information on its citizens needs to have a legal or regulatory agency in place to protect against profiling, Solove said.
"A lot of times it's assumed this is a good thing. Identify people? Great. Fight terrorism? Of course, we want that," he said. "There's nothing inherently wrong with identifying people, but there are some consequences. If the government keeps track of where I'm going and everywhere I go, then that makes me feel less free to go where I want."
But Shannon said: "Look, we understand there are privacy issues. This information is going to be protected. It never hurts to take the next step."