RFID Passport Controversy Heats Up

The debate surrounding RFID-tagged passports is growing more intense as the United States nears introduction of the new technology.
Published: April 1, 2005

This article was originally published by RFID Update.

April 1, 2005—The debate surrounding RFID-tagged passports is growing more intense as the United States nears introduction of the new technology. Those opposing the initiative worry that travelers carrying passports will effectively be broadcasting their personal information for hackers, identity thieves, or terrorists to read surreptitiously from a distance. Because the RFID tag data, which includes the owner’s name, birthday, and digitized photo, will not be encrypted, anyone with a powerful enough RFID reader will easily be able to pluck the sensitive information from unwitting passers-by. Furthermore, the RFID tags include 64 kilobytes of storage, enough room to accommodate even more sensitive fingerprint and eye-matching biometric data should the government later choose to add it.

Government representatives, of course, disagree with the feasibility of these hypothetical scenarios. The read range of the tags is only about eight centimeters, notably less than those used in supply chain operations, according to the U.S. State Department’s deputy assistant secretary for passport services Frank Moss. The department also claims to be considering incorporating a metal wrapping in the passport that would block unauthorized reads. (This admission certainly seems to belie their assertion that the RFID tag data is secure.)

But ultimately, the government’s position is that RFID is the technology best suited to the job. Technologies that require contact-reads, such as the barcode, simply do not provide the same anti-counterfeiting features or the ability to store information directly on the passport.

It is difficult for those of us not passionately for or against RFID passports to judge the merits of each position, as the debate has become so polarized and the opposition so shrill. On the one hand, the insistence of some opponents to label all RFID technology “spy chips” or to launch sensationalized sites like RFIDKills.com undermines the seriousness with which their arguments might otherwise be taken. On the other hand, there does seem to be a gut-reaction in most of us against the prospect of our sensitive personal information being broadcasted wirelessly, no matter how short the purported distance. And indeed, there are a handful of established business and political groups — the American Civil Liberties Union, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Business Travel Coalition, and the Association of Corporate Travel Executives — that are organizing against RFID passports.

We want to hear what you think. Do you feel that RFID-tagged passports will compromise Americans’ safety abroad? Is the U.S. State department being negligent in pursuing this initiative? Or will RFID passports improve national security by providing better control at U.S. borders? Please write in with your thoughts.

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