RF-IDing Americans Overseas

After spending a little time in Europe, I've concluded the idea that terrorists are going to use the RFID transponder in passports to identify and kill Americans is more than a little ludicrous.
Published: October 30, 2006

There’s been a big hullabaloo in the United States about the potential threat posed by putting radio frequency identification transponders in passports. Some people are apparently concerned that terrorists or other evildoers could surreptitiously interrogate the transponder and learn that someone is an American, and then blow that person up. After spending a little time in Europe, I’ve concluded that the idea is more than a little ludicrous.

First a little background. The U.S. State Department announced that it was going to use RFID in passports and didn’t really think through all of the privacy and security implications. During a consultation period, the response from the public—no doubt organized by groups that oppose RFID in anything—was overwhelmingly negative.

State Department officials initially seemed to downplay the concerns, but eventually agreed to put a shield into the cover of the passports so the transponder in the passport could not be read without the passport being opened. One group reported that the transponder in a passport could be read if the passport was open just an inch or two.

Last week, I carried my passport, which has a transponder, around in Amsterdam when going out in the evening after the program for RFID Journal LIVE! Europe ended each day. I kept it in my breast pocket, where it was firmly closed. The only time data from my passport could be read was when I took the passport out of my pocket. Of course, it says “United States of America” right on the cover, so before anyone could skim my RFID transponder, they’d already be able to see I am an American.

What I found most strange in Amsterdam was the fact that people could identify me as an American even when I didn’t take out my passport. Waiters would address me in English immediately. I would walk up to store clerks, and they would address me in English. People on the street would speak to me in English. Only one person addressed me in Dutch the entire week I was in Amsterdam, and that was a person who drove up from behind me while I was walking in the town of Nordvick. He wanted directions.

I wondered what technology these people were using to identify me as a non-Dutch speaking person and, likely, an American. Did they have some new identification technology that was more advanced than RFID? Some facial-recognition software that distinguishes between Dutch people and foreigners? Sensors in a mesh network that distinguish the smell of English-speakers from everyone else?

On the last day of my stay in the Netherlands, I visited the Resistance Museum, which has a wonderful permanent display about how some Dutch citizens fought underground against Nazi occupation. A young Dutch gentleman came up to ask me a question as I sat and waited for my friends. I told him I didn’t know where the restrooms were and then said: “How did you know I speak English?”

“You’re an American,” he said. “You can tell from a mile away.”