US passport project under scrutiny
Chips for the US ePassports are manufactured by Infineon, with an OS developed by Gemalto. The inlays are manufactured by Smartrac. But the personalization is performed in the US. The production process, involving steps in Europe, Thailand, and the US, is the subject of concerns for US authorities, as blank passport booklets and other subparts are shipped around the world. Smartrac recently invested in HEI, a US company previously known as Cross Technology Ltd. (cf. SI #07-37), with the objective to move part of its production to the US to satisfy federal authorities.
Some of the critics say the GPO is putting cost savings ahead of national security. The GPO's decision to export the work has proved lucrative, allowing the agency to book more than US$ 100 million (EUR 64 million) in recent profits by charging the State Department more money for blank passports than it actually costs to make them, according to interviews with federal officials and documents obtained by The Washington Times. Officials at GPO, the Homeland Security Department and the State Department played down such concerns, saying they are confident that regular audits and other protections already in place will keep terrorists and foreign spies from stealing or copying the sensitive components to make fake passports.
Now, the State Department is investigating whether it is being overcharged for blank electronic passports by the Government Printing Office, the sole maker of the new travel document, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said. The secretary said her main worry was that foreign computer chips and overseas assembly for the passports pose security risks. Security officials at the State Department assured her that the production process is protected, she said.