New EU passports will be embedded with a radio frequency ID chip that contains biometric data, after standards bodies put the technology on a fast-track to deployment.
International technical standards and civil aviation organisations have confirmed that they are working on deploying passports containing details that enable the "machine-assisted identification" of the passenger, which will be required by travellers visiting the US from October 2004.
The move comes after the US introduced strict new laws that demand biometric data is contained in passports of visitors from countries that generally do not require a visa to travel to the US, which includes the UK and most other EU countries. The US Enhanced Border Security and Visa Reform Act of 2002 states that these countries should issue "machine-readable passports that are tamper-resistant and incorporate biometric identifiers that comply with applicable biometric identifiers standards established by the International Civil Aviation Organisation".
Workgroups of the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) will be meeting in London next week to discuss the key issues of the project, which include achieving international compatibility and protecting the data once it has been collected.
The EU agreed to develop a biometric ID strategy during its June summit in Greece. Civil liberties groups have criticised the plan as an infringement on individuals' rights.
RFID tags have been used as an alternative to barcode labels to help keep track of products ranging from clothes to livestock. RFID has a big advantage over barcodes because, for example, the individual contents of a box can be identified without having to physically open the box. If the chip was embedded into a passport, it would give immigration officials a simple method to ensure the traveller is the owner of the passport.
RFID technology is also being used to improve luggage handling. Singapore's Changi Airport, Amsterdam's Schiphol, and New York's John F. Kennedy have confirmed they will be experimenting with radio-tagged luggage later this year.