RFID in U.S. passports are here

I guess it is not too surprising, but one would think that the era of bar codes coming into the background technology of passports would make life easier for travel. It’s a lot like shopping. Walk up to the counter, swipe it through, and you’re in. It wasn’t until a snippet on BoingBoing linked to the following article that I learned about the changes of international travel as a U.S. citizen.

How To: Disable Your Passport’s RFID Chip

All passports issued by the US State Department after January 1 will have always-on radio frequency identification chips, making it easy for officials – and hackers – to grab your personal stats. Getting paranoid about strangers slurping up your identity? Here’s what you can do about it. But be careful – tampering with a passport is punishable by 25 years in prison. Not to mention the “special” customs search, with rubber gloves. Bon voyage! [wired]

It’s not a constant tracking of your movements, but this is getting somewhat close. RFID[wiki] is how large companies, like Wal-Mart or FedEx, track shipments of materials across the expanse of their operations. Like the article says, this technology is pretty much always on. Just like GPS, you just have to have the right tools to tune in and find our where you are. Except in this case, someone can find your general location. Or at least, they can find where you lost your favorite pair of pants that you left your passport in.

I have till the end of this decade until I have to renew mine, and this really creeps me out. I wonder when someone will start selling lead-lined wallets for your passport. After 2010, I’ll become a dot on someone’s grid.


3 Replies to “RFID in U.S. passports are here”

  1. All they will ever see of me is a non-moving dot. My passport stays in my safe at home…I carry only a copy with me when out and about. The only time I use my passport is when I am travelling internationally.

  2. That’s not quite how RFID works. It’s not a GPS chip sending your personal data to some inscrutible satellite system. It’s a chip with a number. That’s all. It’s “always on” in the sense that it can be induced to relate that number at any time. The RF stands for “radio frequency.” You pass through a scanner-like an EZ-Pass tollbooth (anothere example of RFID at work)-and a signal is broadcast to the chip. The chip then relates its ID back to the reader. Not exactly like sonar, but very much a “ping, pong” request, response situation.

    The RFID chip itself does not have your personal information, though I guess that could be encoded into it in addition to the tracking number. Rather, the reader that sent the signal and received the ID response is networked to a giant database that has all your personal information, pulls whatever details were requested and adds whatever new details have arrived. For instance, EZ Pass. You drive through the booth, your number gets read, your credit information is brought up, a debit is made from your account and the time and location of your movement through the booth is recorded.

    So you see the security problem. The first is identity theft. Someone could access the database and steal all your personal details. Frankly though, that’s a lot of work. It’d be a lot easier to just steal your wallet and use your RFID-enabled government-issued lisence to do that. But why go to the trouble of stealing a whole wallet when all you need is one small number from what is proving to be an easily hackable radio signal? All it’d take is a wireless-enabled PDA and suddenly someone is showing up as you in the datastream without the need for any pesky documentation at all.

    The second security problem comes from the government watching you-the intimidation factor. You don’t need to have an RFID sensor in every piece of every sidewalk or even at every street corner. You just need to be able to track people well-enough. EZ Pass. In addition to the toll booths you have a sensor at every on and off ramp on a freeway. Now the record shows exactly where you were and when. Imagine taking a road trip and then coming home to $300 in speeding tickets even though you never saw a cop. They know point A, point B and when you passed each. Basic math lets them know if you were speeding.

    Put an RFID sensor in the doorway of every store. You don’t even need to deal with a cashier. Walk in, fill your basket and walk out. Your account will automatically be charged. But now the record shows exactly where you were and what you had. The goal is to embed an RFID tag in everything. Sure, the government will know who exactly was at a certain crime scene with what weapon, but they’ll also know who was at church, or with their mistress, or at the abortion clinic, or meeting with this or that person. What happens to an anti-war demonstration when every person there knows the government they’re demonstrating against will know they were there? What happens to a pillow-fight flashmob when every person there knows they’ll be marked? Anonymity is essential to freedom.

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