Security concerns over U.S. decision to outsource e-passport production

Published 28 March 2008

The U.S. Government Printing Office’s (GPO) decision to outsource the production of the new e-passports to companies in Europe and Thailand makes legislators, security experts worry; Thailand is an unstable country with a tradition of corruption and rising Islamic terrorism problem; the Dutch company which operates the Thai e-passport production facilities filed court papers in October 2007 charging that China had stolen the company’s patented technology for e-passport chips

Some U.S. diplomats already use the new e-passport, and more and more U.S. citizens will be given the high-tech passport when they apply for new passports or renew their old ones. There is a problem here, though: The U.S. government has outsourced the manufacturing of its electronic passports to overseas companies — including one in Thailand that was victimized by Chinese espionage — raising concerns that cost savings are being put ahead of national security, the Washington Times’s Bill Gertz writes. The Government Printing Office’s (GPO) decision to export the work has proved profitable, allowing the agency to book more than $100 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. The profits have raised questions both inside the agency and in Congress because the law that created GPO as the federal government’s official printer explicitly requires the agency to break even by charging only enough to recover its costs.

Lawmakers are alarmed. “I am not only troubled that there may be serious security concerns with the new passport production system, but also that GPO officials may have been profiting from producing them,” said Representative John Dingell (D-Michigan), who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Officials at GPO, DHS, 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. “Aside from the fact that we have fully vetted and qualified vendors, we also note that the materials are moved via a secure transportation means, including armored vehicles,” GPO spokesman Gary Somerset said. GPO Inspector General J. Anthony Ogden is less sanguine. He warned in an internal 12 October report that there are “significant deficiencies with the manufacturing of blank passports, security of components, and the internal controls for the process.” The inspector general’s report said GPO claimed it could not improve its security because of “monetary constraints,” but the inspector general recently told congressional investigators he was unaware that the agency had booked tens of millions of dollars in profits through passport sales that could have been used to improve security, congressional aides told The Times.

Gertz reports that when the government moved a few years ago to a new electronic passport