Passport radio chips send too many signals

Bruce Schneier, a security technologist and author of “Beyond Fear: Thinking Sensibly About
Security in an Uncertain World.”, writes in todays IHT. He discusses the future use of RFID technology in passports. I think he is right to be wary of technology that is not as secure as it should be. This is a very worrying article, it might be a matter of time before the Irish government adopts such technology, added to the embedded chips.

Unfortunately, RFID chips can be read by any reader, not just the ones at passport control. The upshot of this is that travelers carrying around RFID passports are broadcasting their identity.

Think about what that means for a minute. It means that passport holders are continuously broadcasting their name, nationality, age, address and whatever else is on the RFID chip. It means that anyone with a reader can learn that information, without the passport holder’s knowledge or consent. It means that pickpockets, kidnappers and terrorists can easily – and surreptitiously – pick Americans or nationals of other participating countries out of a crowd.

It is a clear threat to both privacy and personal safety, and quite simply, that is why it is bad idea. Proponents of the system claim that the chips can be read only from within a distance of a few centimeters, so there is no potential for abuse. This is a spectacularly naïve claim. All wireless protocols can work at much longer ranges than specified. In tests, RFID chips have been read by receivers 20 meters away. Improvements in technology are inevitable.

Security is always a trade-off. If the benefits of RFID outweighed the risks, then maybe it would be worth it. Certainly, there isn’t a significant benefit when people present their passport to a customs official. If that customs official is going to take the passport and bring it near a reader, why can’t he go those extra few centimeters that a contact chip – one the reader must actually touch – would require?

The Bush administration is deliberately choosing a less secure technology without justification. If there were a good offsetting reason to choose that technology over a contact chip, then the choice might make sense.

Unfortunately, there is only one possible reason: The administration wants surreptitious access themselves. It wants to be able to identify people in crowds. It wants to surreptitiously pick out the Americans, and pick out the foreigners. It wants to do the very thing that it insists, despite demonstrations to the contrary, can’t be done.

Normally I am very careful before I ascribe such sinister motives to a government agency. Incompetence is the norm, and malevolence is much rarer. But this seems like a clear case of the Bush administration putting its own interests above the security and privacy of its citizens, and then lying about it.

3 thoughts on “Passport radio chips send too many signals”

  1. Without a power supply an RFID does not “transmit” any data. Nearly all RFID’s are of this design becasue they are cheaper, smaller, and don’t have a shelf life. A tag has to be hit with electromagnetic radiaion (radio waves usually) to respond. The range is merely a function of the power of the transmitted signal and the ability to “hear” the repsonse from the tag.

    As RFID’s become more common, people will market shields for them or make them at home. I have a crackpot friend that carries all his government ID and cash larger than 20’s in a lead lined film bag to prevent the gov’t from watching him.

  2. “It means that pickpockets, kidnappers and terrorists can easily – and surreptitiously – pick Americans or nationals of other participating countries out of a crowd.”

    From what I’ve heard around Dublin, picking Americans out of a crowd doesn’t usually require fancy technology.

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