By Ryan Singel
Oct, 30, 2006
The story seems simple enough. An outside privacy and security advisory
committee to the Department of Homeland Security penned a tough report
concluding the government should not use chips that can be read remotely
in identification documents. But the report remains stuck in draft mode,
even as new identification cards with the chips are being announced.
Jim Harper, a Cato Institute fellow who serves on the committee and who
recently published a book on identification called Identity Crisis,
thinks he knows why the Department of Homeland Security Data Privacy and
Integrity Advisory Committee report on the use of Radio Frequency
Identification devices for human identification (.pdf)  never made it
out of the draft stage.
"The powers that be took a good run at deep-sixing this report," Harper
said. "There's such a strongly held consensus among industry and DHS
that RFID is the way to go that getting people off of that and getting
them to examine the technology is very hard to do."
RFID chips, which either have a battery or use the radio waves from a
reader to send information, are widely used in tracking inventory or for
highway toll payment systems.
But critics argue that hackers can skim information off the chips and
that the chips can be used to track individuals. Hackers have also been
able to clone some chips, such as those used for payment cards and
building security, as well as passports.
The draft report concludes that "RFID appears to offer little benefit
when compared to the consequences it brings for privacy and data
integrity" -- a finding that was widely criticized by RFID industry
officials when the committee met in June.
Meanwhile, the RFIDs just keeping coming. Last week, the State
Department announced that it would soon be issuing new cards for
visitors to Mexico, Canada and the Bermudas containing a chip that could
be read from 20 feet away.
Changes in federal law will require Americans to have either a passport
or the new "PASS card" to re-enter the country by air in 2007. Currently
a driver's license will suffice to get an American back inside the
country from these neighboring spots, but starting in 2008 that won't
suffice even for quick, cross-border jaunts by car.
RFID chips are being used in the nation's passports, cards used to
identify transportation workers and cards for federal employees, and may
be features of the Registered Traveler program, the soon-to-be-released
standards for all states' driver's licenses under the REAL-ID act, as
well as proposed medical cards.
Homeland Security spokesman Larry Orluskie says no one's trying to kill
the report. "The committee is still soliciting input and the draft
report is on its website, so I guess they are proceeding," Orluskie
In early October, the Center for Democracy and Technology, a civil
liberties group known for partnering with industry groups, submitted
comments criticizing the draft report, calling for a deeper factual
inquiry and analysis, and a broader focus on identification technologies
Jim Dempsey, the policy director for the CDT, says his group doesn't
want the report killed -- he just thinks the privacy committee is
ignoring the reality that RFID-enabled identification is already here.
The report should focus on how secure the cards are, how far they can be
read from and the whole backend of how data is stored and shared.
"Basically we were raising a flag on the one hand saying that RFID is
already being deployed and we can no longer take the finger-in-the-dike
approach," Dempsey said. "And we were saying that RFID is only one facet
and not necessarily the most troubling aspect of this broader evolution
of the creation and management of identification. The implications are
huge, and to focus on RFID is, in that sense, off-target."
For instance, when customs agents begin reading the new PASS cards at
the border, the travel data will be stored for up to 50 years, will be
shared within Homeland Security and will be made available to law
enforcement groups, both domestically and internationally, according to
DHS' own privacy assessment (.pdf) .
It's unclear whether the new cards will have encryption or other
measures to prevent skimming or forgery. That decision was left to the
State Department, which will produce the card and has thus far remained
mum on the privacy issues.
Harper hopes the committee will vote to finalize the report and that it
will have an effect on the design of the PASS card, which currently
proposes to let a Customs officer read them from 20 feet away.
"If we don't have a report out before the (PASS card) comment period
ends, then we are irrelevant," Harper said.
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