Tangled Webs

   RFID. So, Who’s Asking?
Issue 10.1
May 28, 2005

The Wind Up

I love travel, and sometimes the best travel is hard travel. Thankfully, there are still wonderful corners of this planet that can only be reached by riding camels, climbing mountains, or hiking through jungles. Unfortunately, getting to these places usually requires passage through some relatively unsafe ports and cities.

The danger is real – kidnapping foreigners is practically a cottage industry in Latin America – but the risks tend to be overstated. In over a decade of travel, I’ve never had a serious problem. Two generations of American and European tourists have learned that safety is largely a matter of staying alert, not drawing undue attention and just enjoying yourself.

Unfortunately, the US State Department’s plan to embed Radio-Frequency ID (RFID) chips in all US passports and to require other developed nations to do the same may put an end to the era of crime-free adventure travel.

These RFID chips will broadcast the passport holder’s name, picture, birth date and passport number so that immigration officials can read the data at a distance. The problem, of course, is that anyone else with an RFID reader will also be able to read this information. If you don’t find this prospect terrifying, imagine being caught in a traffic jam in a third-world nation with every thief and kidnapper in the area not only being able to pinpoint which taxi in which you are riding, but also being able to obtain your passport information and photograph.

The US government is pushing this project forward despite the potential risk to American lives and significant domestic and foreign outcry. Now, when any government does something this dangerous, expensive and unpopular, I like to think they have a rational reason. There must be a tremendous potential gain somewhere to offset the risk. This case is no exception, but the gains come a few years down the road, and have nothing to do with the justifications currently being offered.

The Pitch

The primary benefit claimed by RFID proponents is that the chips will make immigration faster and more efficient. Is it just me, or does it seem that anyone introducing any sort of new technology is required to claim it increases speed and efficiency? In this case, however, the claim falls apart upon even cursory examination.

The RFID readers that immigration agents will be using have a range of about ten inches, and agents will still need to examine the physical passport. The RFID chip would only eliminate the need for the agent to run the passport though a barcode or magnetic-stripe reader. The best-case scenario is that this could increase processing speeds by as much as one second per person.

The secondary advantage claimed is that these chips will make passports more secure and tamper-proof. This is quite true in the sense that RFID chips can store significantly more information than bar codes, and the more information you can store, the more secure and tamper-proof you can make the data.

As far as I’m concerned, however, making the passports more secure by putting passport holders at risk indicates dangerously flawed priorities. There are more common, less expensive technologies such as optical chips that can hold even more information without broadcasting it to the entire world.

Now, in the interest of fairness, I should point out that with the current generation of technology, the risks I outlined above are minimal. Today’s RFID readers have a maximum range of only a few yards and the tags themselves are easily shielded. If we halted all technological progress today, we would remain perfectly safe. Of course, technology does not stand still. Engineering problems have a way of getting solved.

The Swing

So what makes RFID passports so attractive despite their expense and the potential danger to passport holders? With today’s technology: nothing. In a few years, however, RFID readers will have greater range and the tags will be much harder to shield. At that point, the US State Department will have a surveillance tool straight out of Star Trek.

Although the US has not specifically required the 27 visa-wavier nations to use RFID technology in their new machine-readable passports, most seem to be following the US and adopting RFID. Citizens traveling from other countries require a US visa to be placed in their passports and it is easy to attach an RFID chip to these visas. The result is that everyone on route to the United States will have an RFID chip broadcasting their passport information.

RFID readers on the planes could relay passenger information to US Immigration before the plane ever leaves the ground, and readers in airports could closely monitor the movements of all passengers. If two people have a conversation in an airport lounge, the US government would know about it.

Now, whether this system should be labeled a powerful counter-terrorism tool, an unprecedented invasion of privacy or some combination of the two, I leave for the reader to decide. Such a system is, however, useful enough to explain why the US State Department is pushing so relentlessly for this particular solution.

Those charged with fighting terrorism inside the US undoubtedly realize how much such a tool would help them. From a worldwide perspective, however, it would help the bad guys even more. Putting RFID tags in passports would amount to painting a bulls-eye on the backs of tourists from developed nations by automatically identifying them to every thief, kidnapper, and terrorist willing to buy some inexpensive equipment.

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