American Passports will be fitted with Radio Frequency Identification Chips (RFID) from next year that will hold a digital photo of the passport's owner along with other information currently printed in passports.
The US Government is planning to introduce the new passports to anyone who applies for a new one from October 2006 with older passports coming up for renewal after this date automatically getting an electronic version.
In issuing the new rules, the department is matching a requirement it is imposing on visitors from several other countries. Foreigners from countries who do not need visas to enter the United States also must have the chips by next October. Such countries will be responsible for providing their citizens with passports that comply with US entry requirements.
A spokeswoman said the department is convinced the electronic passports will provide enhanced security.
Technology experts have said that the data on the chips, which will be read at a short distance by electronic devices in a passport-control booth, could be electronically intercepted and potentially misused.
According to the filing, the passports will be equipped with "anti-skimming" technology on the front and back of the passport to reduce the chance of the signal being intercepted between the passport and the electronic reader.
The chips will also have enough memory to add additional biometric information in the future.
Some privacy groups fear that the chips could be a prelude to tracking individuals' movements.