April 18, 2006 6:31 PM PDT

New RFID travel cards could pose privacy threat

ARLINGTON, Va.--Future government-issued travel documents may feature embedded computer chips that can be read at a distance of up to 30 feet, a top Homeland Security official said Tuesday, creating what some fear would be a threat to privacy.

Jim Williams, director of the Department of Homeland Security's US-VISIT program, told a smart card conference here that such tracking chips could be inserted into the new generation of wallet-size identity cards used to ease travel by Americans to Canada and Mexico starting in 2008. Those chips use radio frequency identification technology, or RFID.

"If you haven't been to some of our busiest land crossings, I always refer to them as economic choke points...We ought to use technology to improve that," said Williams, whose office operates the biometric program used to verify that the fingerprint of a person using a U.S. visa to cross a U.S. border matches that of the person who was issued the visa.

Williams' remarks at an industry conference are likely to heighten privacy concerns about RFID technology, which has drawn fire from activists and prompted hearings before the U.S. Congress and the Federal Trade Commission. One California politician has even introduced anti-RFID legislation.

Many of the privacy worries center on whether RFID tags--typically miniscule chips with an antenna a few inches long that can transmit a unique ID number--can be read from afar. If the range is a few inches, the privacy concerns are reduced. But at ranges of 30 feet, the tags could theoretically be read by hidden sensors alongside the road, in the mall or in the hands of criminals hoping to identify someone on the street by his or her ID number.

Williams defended a remotely readable RFID'ed identity card to audience members who suggested selecting one that could be scanned from only a few inches away. Border police oppose that idea because "they're concerned about people dropping cards, about people sticking their hands out the window," he said. "They don't think that meets their mission needs"--that is, speeding up the border-crossing process.

Those forthcoming cards, called "PASS" (for People Access Security Service), are part of a federal requirement that, starting Jan. 1, 2008, anyone entering the United States from Mexico or Canada must carry a passport or "alternative" travel document. Homeland Security envisions that document will take the form of a "vicinity-read" wallet-size card that will capture information from a distance and automatically display the cardholder's picture and other biographic information on the border agent's computer screen.

Homeland Security has said, in a government procurement notice posted in September, that "read ranges shall extend to a minimum of 25 feet" in RFID-equipped identification cards used for border crossings. For people crossing on a bus, the proposal says, "the solution must sense up to 55 tokens."

The notice, unearthed by an anti-RFID advocacy group, also specifies: "The government requires that IDs be read under circumstances that include the device being carried in a pocket, purse, wallet, in traveler's clothes or elsewhere on the person of the traveler....The traveler should not have to do anything to prepare the device to be read, or to present the device for reading--i.e., passive and automatic use."

An internal agency spat?
But Homeland Security could run into some internal opposition in the form of the State Department, which appears to be leaning toward the "proximity" method instead of remotely readable RFID'ed identity cards.

"We think proximity read offers greater security protections," Frank Moss, deputy assistant secretary of state for passport services, said Tuesday. That method would also have a better chance of getting past the scrutiny of privacy advocates in the requisite rule-making process, added Moss, who joked that he had been labeled the "anti-Christ" by one person who commented on the State Department's e-passport proposals.

RFID chips are already going to appear in U.S. passports starting in October 2006, the Bush administration ruled last October. And the possibility of RFID-implanted drivers' licenses because of the Real ID Act has caused New Hampshire's House of Representatives to disavow the proposal entirely.

Moss ticked off a list of reasons why Americans shouldn't be concerned about the safety of RFID'ed passports any longer. He admitted the State Department was wrong to claim last year that the e-passport chips could be read within only 10 centimeters. He credited the scathing comments from privacy watchdogs for the agency's decision to adopt two safeguards: a cryptographic technique known as basic access control and "antiskimming material" on the passport's front cover, which "greatly complicates" the capture of data when the book is fully or mostly closed, Moss said.

The government agencies said they need to reach an agreement on the RFID technology they'll use in the next month so that they can begin soliciting proposals from private firms for the chip's design. They hope to begin producing the PASS cards no later than nine months from now, Moss said.

"What we're putting in the card is possibly nothing but a 96-digit serial number that is random and would do nothing but point back to a database...someone would have to hack into our database at the same time," Homeland Security's Williams said, adding that the agency is considering delivering the cards in a "Mylar sleeve that would block the technology when people aren't using it." They're also exploring using a card that would have to be activated by the user, through a fingerprint or some other biometric method, before any information could be read remotely.

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25 comments

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RFID can't be read more than 10 inches away ...
At least, that was the standard answer 1 year ago when opponents criticized the technology.

They were accused of being nothing more than a bunch of conspiring freaks.

1 year later, we're at 30x that, and nothing would prevent this range from being extended again.

Still want to go to that opposing political party's convention ? are you sure ? You might pay for it.
OTOH, if you attend to this political rally, or you're seen at this group's meeting, it might be good for your career ...

You're still free to go wherever you want, but now be ready to pay for the consequences.
Posted by My-Self (242 comments )
Reply Link Flag
It's not the 30 feet they want
I work with passive RFID readers all day long and I have yet to see one that can read more than about 4 feet away. They're apparently ASKING for something that can do >25', but I'll be suprised to see anybody deliver with current technology. Now I'm not saying it will never be done, but here's the challenge:

Passive RFID chips are powered by the antenna reading the signal. The antenna puts out a signal that powers the circuit. By law, this signal cannot be more than 4 watts because of health concerns. If you want to stop the government from doing this, the best way is to make sure they do not get some kind of "waiver" to the 4 watts law. With 4 watts, you'll never get a read from 25' away or from outside a car or bus or anything like that. They will need to come up with another way to power the circuit.

Also, you might be interested in seeing the results of current RFID implementations. Passive tags still struggle to have consistent reads. In other words...you'll never know if you scanned the whole bus because you can't count on the fact that every tag will beacon.
Posted by (42 comments )
Link Flag
RFID can't be read more than 10 inches away ...
At least, that was the standard answer 1 year ago when opponents criticized the technology.

They were accused of being nothing more than a bunch of conspiring freaks.

1 year later, we're at 30x that, and nothing would prevent this range from being extended again.

Still want to go to that opposing political party's convention ? are you sure ? You might pay for it.
OTOH, if you attend to this political rally, or you're seen at this group's meeting, it might be good for your career ...

You're still free to go wherever you want, but now be ready to pay for the consequences.
Posted by My-Self (242 comments )
Reply Link Flag
It's not the 30 feet they want
I work with passive RFID readers all day long and I have yet to see one that can read more than about 4 feet away. They're apparently ASKING for something that can do >25', but I'll be suprised to see anybody deliver with current technology. Now I'm not saying it will never be done, but here's the challenge:

Passive RFID chips are powered by the antenna reading the signal. The antenna puts out a signal that powers the circuit. By law, this signal cannot be more than 4 watts because of health concerns. If you want to stop the government from doing this, the best way is to make sure they do not get some kind of "waiver" to the 4 watts law. With 4 watts, you'll never get a read from 25' away or from outside a car or bus or anything like that. They will need to come up with another way to power the circuit.

Also, you might be interested in seeing the results of current RFID implementations. Passive tags still struggle to have consistent reads. In other words...you'll never know if you scanned the whole bus because you can't count on the fact that every tag will beacon.
Posted by (42 comments )
Link Flag
Terrorist Threat
If the RFID in passports and ID cards are transmitting at a distance of 30 ft what is there to stop terrorists from scanning crowds to insure they can find the Americans.
Posted by Dave_M (2 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Terrorist Threat
If the RFID in passports and ID cards are transmitting at a distance of 30 ft what is there to stop terrorists from scanning crowds to insure they can find the Americans.
Posted by Dave_M (2 comments )
Reply Link Flag
How Long?
I think the US government has nothing but good intentions with this technology. They want to protect our borders and our citizens. But once the government decides that this is needed in every drivers license and every social security card... how long will it be before it seems like a good idea to continuously collect data on where people are? You know, we could lower taxes by selling your shopping habits to marketing firms... If there is a violent crime in the city, wouldn't it be nice to see who was in that area at that time? But wait! Criminals will be smarter and leave their drivers license at home... we should just implant these chips in people at birth. I think you see where I'm going...

There HAS to be a way to get similar results WITHOUT invading on our personal privacy.
Posted by jschind (9 comments )
Reply Link Flag
computer chips
What happens when someone tampers with the chip to change the information. You've seen it in the SCI-FI movies, but you know it's just a mater of time before it will be a reality (if it's not already here). What happens to when someone steals the chip?

Then What?
Posted by Michael00360 (58 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Well..let's see
Yes, chips can already be written to by RFID readers in almost all implementations of passive RFID chips so that is a concern. The best way to secure it is by using tags that implement public/private key encryption.

As far as stealing it?...well...you report it stolen. How is that much different than a stolen ID?
Posted by (42 comments )
Link Flag
How Long?
I think the US government has nothing but good intentions with this technology. They want to protect our borders and our citizens. But once the government decides that this is needed in every drivers license and every social security card... how long will it be before it seems like a good idea to continuously collect data on where people are? You know, we could lower taxes by selling your shopping habits to marketing firms... If there is a violent crime in the city, wouldn't it be nice to see who was in that area at that time? But wait! Criminals will be smarter and leave their drivers license at home... we should just implant these chips in people at birth. I think you see where I'm going...

There HAS to be a way to get similar results WITHOUT invading on our personal privacy.
Posted by jschind (9 comments )
Reply Link Flag
computer chips
What happens when someone tampers with the chip to change the information. You've seen it in the SCI-FI movies, but you know it's just a mater of time before it will be a reality (if it's not already here). What happens to when someone steals the chip?

Then What?
Posted by Michael00360 (58 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Well..let's see
Yes, chips can already be written to by RFID readers in almost all implementations of passive RFID chips so that is a concern. The best way to secure it is by using tags that implement public/private key encryption.

As far as stealing it?...well...you report it stolen. How is that much different than a stolen ID?
Posted by (42 comments )
Link Flag
Shielded pockets..
Gee. Some silver or copper-tin fabric lining the pocket where your passport is all you need.

Ohnoooes! Prices of copper, and silver skyrocket!
Posted by Below Meigh (249 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Shielded pockets..
Gee. Some silver or copper-tin fabric lining the pocket where your passport is all you need.

Ohnoooes! Prices of copper, and silver skyrocket!
Posted by Below Meigh (249 comments )
Reply Link Flag
personal security becoming obsolete
Despite the assurances given out by, this new passport system still feels like a digital dog tag. Seems a little naive to the technology out there as well, that will find a way to grab that info no matter what, making every person in an international airport a potential victim of identity theft. Another example where protecting national security becomes an case of threatening our right to privacy...<a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.essentialsecurity.com/yourbusiness.htm" target="_newWindow">http://www.essentialsecurity.com/yourbusiness.htm</a>
Posted by 209979377489953107664053243186 (71 comments )
Reply Link Flag
personal security becoming obsolete
Despite the assurances given out by, this new passport system still feels like a digital dog tag. Seems a little naive to the technology out there as well, that will find a way to grab that info no matter what, making every person in an international airport a potential victim of identity theft. Another example where protecting national security becomes an case of threatening our right to privacy...<a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.essentialsecurity.com/yourbusiness.htm" target="_newWindow">http://www.essentialsecurity.com/yourbusiness.htm</a>
Posted by 209979377489953107664053243186 (71 comments )
Reply Link Flag
RFID Proximity Trigger
If an RFID has a unique serial then it would be too easy to created a proximity trigger, for when a certain person walks by, to do something nasty!
Posted by aprobert (6 comments )
Reply Link Flag
RFID Proximity Trigger
If an RFID has a unique serial then it would be too easy to created a proximity trigger, for when a certain person walks by, to do something nasty!
Posted by aprobert (6 comments )
Reply Link Flag
RFID Proximity Trigger
If an RFID has a unique serial then it would be too easy to created a proximity trigger, for when a certain person walks by, to do something nasty!
Posted by aprobert (6 comments )
Reply Link Flag
RFID Proximity Trigger
If an RFID has a unique serial then it would be too easy to create a proximity trigger, for when a certain person walks by, to do something nasty!
Posted by aprobert (6 comments )
Reply Link Flag
RFID Proximity Trigger
If an RFID has a unique serial then it would be too easy to created a proximity trigger, for when a certain person walks by, to do something nasty!
Posted by aprobert (6 comments )
Reply Link Flag
RFID Proximity Trigger
If an RFID has a unique serial then it would be too easy to create a proximity trigger, for when a certain person walks by, to do something nasty!
Posted by aprobert (6 comments )
Reply Link Flag
You can control if an RFID card is readable
There is a concern that RFID tags embedded in credit cards may make the presence of such cards detectable by anyone with an RFID reader.

To answer that concern, we have an easy way to make RFID tagged cards normally invisible, but active when you want them to be.

Background: RFID tags are appearing everywhere. They can be embedded in plastic cards such as credit cards, id cards, passports and other places. There are privacy concerns about these tags being read without the owners knowledge.

Solution: "RFID Shield" lets you choose when your tags are readable.

Information about the RFID Shield is at:
<a class="jive-link-external" href="http://smarttools.home.att.net/rfshield.htm" target="_newWindow">http://smarttools.home.att.net/rfshield.htm</a>
Posted by smarttools (7 comments )
Reply Link Flag
You can control if an RFID card is readable
There is a concern that RFID tags embedded in credit cards may make the presence of such cards detectable by anyone with an RFID reader.

To answer that concern, we have an easy way to make RFID tagged cards normally invisible, but active when you want them to be.

Background: RFID tags are appearing everywhere. They can be embedded in plastic cards such as credit cards, id cards, passports and other places. There are privacy concerns about these tags being read without the owners knowledge.

Solution: "RFID Shield" lets you choose when your tags are readable.

Information about the RFID Shield is at:
<a class="jive-link-external" href="http://smarttools.home.att.net/rfshield.htm" target="_newWindow">http://smarttools.home.att.net/rfshield.htm</a>
Posted by smarttools (7 comments )
Reply Link Flag
666
Posted by zulaycafe (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
 

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