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
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
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.
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