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Schwarzenegger Signs Anti-Skimming RFID Measure But Vetoes Bill on School IDs

The law makes it illegal to surreptitiously reading RFID tags embedded in identity documents.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor
Oct 01, 2008Surreptitiously reading ("skimming") RFID tags embedded in identity documents is now illegal in California. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger on Tuesday signed Senate Bill (SB) 31, which makes skimming RFID-based identity cards punishable with imprisonment in a county jail for up to one year, a fine of up to $1,500, or both. According to the law's wording, the ID cards in question include those issued by government agencies, health insurance companies, employers, libraries and schools. The governor, however, did not approve another piece of legislation focused on RFID technology, SB 29. He vetoed this bill on Sept. 29. It would have required schools to acquire parental consent before requesting that students carry RFID-enabled identity cards, designed to track the children's location or attendance at the school.

California State Senator Joseph Simitian, who authored both bills as well as other RFID-related measured dating back to 2005, says he's pleased with the governor's decision to make skimming illegal.

"It's an acknowledgement from the governor that any technology can be abused and that as technology changes, the law has to keep pace," he says, adding that he was also happy to be able to attain broad-based support for the bill from both industry groups and privacy advocates. "It was not without much discussion along the way, but ultimately we were able to come together on this one."

In a letter that Simitian sent Governor Schwarzenegger, requesting his signature on the bill, the senator said both the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the American Electronics Association supported the bill. While the ACLU and Electronic Frontier Foundation have supported Simitian's RFID-related bills ever since the lawmaker first began drafting the pieces of legislation, the American Electronics Association had teamed with RFID vendors in the past to block other RFID-related bills, saying they were too restrictive and would stifle broad adoption of the technology.

"This [anti-skimming law] will serve as some deterrent, and provide law enforcement with ability to take action [if someone skims data]," Simitian says. "Right now if someone steals your ID card, that's a crime, but if they skim the data of the card, it's not. That makes no sense."

"I have always distinguished between the power of the state that compels the use of technology versus its use in the commercial marketplace. There has to be a higher standard when talking about power of the state," he says. In the commercial sector, he explains, the use of RFID in an opt-in, whereas citizens aren't able to choose what technology is integrated into their state-issued identity documents.

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