Thursday, 13 November 2003

ICAO proposes to require remotely-readable passports by 2006

This week the Technical Advisory Group on Machine Readable Travel Documents (TAG/MRTD) of the International Civil Aviation Organisation , a technical standards organization affiliated with the UN and the ISO , published a formal proposal that all ICAO member countries begin issuing remotely-readable RFID passports by 1 April 2006.

The Proposed Amendments to the ICAO Standards and Recommended Practices were published on the Web site for the next meeting of ICAO’s so-called “Facilitation Division”, which sets aviation standards for travel documents (including the current passport optical character recognition standards), in Cairo 22 March - 2 April 2004.

Why, you may ask, does an aviation standards organization decide how passports will be formatted? Governments (with the USA taking the lead, but many others following) have turned airlines into de facto immigration enforcement agents: if an airline transports you to a country, but you aren’t admitted, the airline is liable for substantial administrative fines — regardless of whether your documents appeared valid and sufficient to the airline. With so much money at stake, airlines have to err on the side of denial of transport if they have any doubt about the validity or sufficiency of your passport, visa, or other documents. As a result, the crucial threshhold for most international travellers is whether their documents will be acceptable to the airline at check-in: far more people have their documents rejected at check-in by airlines than are turned back on arrival for insufficient or invalid documents.

Because ICAO is a technical standards-setting group whose decisions are rarely politically controversial, and because the members of the working group are mainly airlines and immigration authorities, there has been little if any public participation in this plan to require all international travellers to carry remotely-readable personal identification chips.

Most of the criticism of RFID has focused on its use for commercial surveillance of consumers, but its use on ID documents like passports — which international travellers are legally required to carry on their persons at all times, in most countries, and which would thus be exposed at all times to remote identity theft — it at least as problematic.

The Machine Readable Travel Documents plan is summarized in a briefing paper for the Cairo meeting, Biometrics Technology in Machine Readable Travel Documents — The ICAO Blueprint

Through the work of the Technical Advisory Group on Machine Readable Travel Documents (TAG/MRTD), ICAO is currently developing detailed specifications for biometric-enabled, machine readable passports, visas and other official travel documents. On 22 May 2003 the Air Transport Committee of the Council approved a four-part recommendation from the TAG/MRTD which subsequently became known as the ICAO “Blueprint”. The recommendation entailed selection of facial recognition to be used worldwide for machine-assisted identity confirmation [and] use of a contact-less integrated circuit (IC) (chip), with a minimum capacity of 32K bytes of data, as the medium for storage of electronic data, including biometric(s), on a travel document….

The fifth edition of Doc 9303, Part 1 (2003) includes a specification for insertion of a contactless IC in a machine readable passport. Technical reports elaborating on each of the four components of the blueprint have been prepared as precursors to formal specifications, and are available to administrations upon request, in CD-ROM format, as companions to Doc 9303 - Machine Readable Travel Documents, Part 1, Fifth Edition (2002) and Part 3, Second Edition (2003)…. In due course formal specifications based on the technical reports will be incorporated in Doc 9303 and eventually will be processed for adoption as updated ISO standards.

The Division is invited to recommend adoption of the following new Standards and Recommended Practice: … Contracting States should incorporate biometric data in their machine readable passports, visas and other official travel documents… Contracting States incorporating biometric data in their machine readable passports shall store the data as image(s) in a contactless integrated circuit, specified in ISO/IEC 14443, programmed according to the logical data structure as specified by ICAO.

A March-April 2004 meeting and a 2006 implementation target date may seem far in the future, but by the standards of international standards this whole scheme is already close to a fait accompli , and it’s likely to take prompt and vociferous protest to ICAO by travellers and the privacy community, especially those already opposed to RFID in other areas, if it’s to be derailed. (ICAO’s “Machine-Readable Travel Document” scheme is also closely allied with IATA and SITA’s “Simplifying Passenger Travel” scheme to integrate ticketing, check-in, and immigration and security clearance in a single document, which I discussed yesterday .)

I look forward to hearing from those with more technical knowledge just what is implied by the proposed RFID standards for travel documents, or the more detailed specifications contained in ICAO document 9303 (a US$204 set of four volumes summarized here , but that I haven’t yet invested in or located in any public library — if you have a copy to lend, please let me know).

[Update: ICAO has more recently posted ICAO Document 9303 and related publications online for free, at least for the time being. Download them while you can.]

Link | Posted by Edward on Thursday, 13 November 2003, 19:31 ( 7:31 PM)

Follow-up, 28 September 2006, "Governments prepare to log travellers' movements on passport chips":

Posted by: Edward Hasbrouck, 25 August 2022, 18:35 ( 6:35 PM)
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