States Look to Lock Down RFID

Legislation regarding privacy and security is on the rise in states but not from the feds.

In 2005, the actions of a small-town school district in Northern California set off a chain of events that could lead to ground-breaking legislation limiting the use of RFID in California and, if other states pick up the rallying call, across the nation.

Last year the Brittan Elementary School District in Sutter, Calif., required all its students to wear an ID badge implanted with a radio-frequency chip. The badges, which stored a 15-digit identifier for each student, were intended to be used as an attendance aid. Parents, however, were up in arms over the practice, which many said violated their kids privacy rights.

As a result, state Sen. Joseph Simitian, a Democrat from Palo Alto, authored a bill introducing security and privacy measures around the use of radio-frequency identification—particularly in government ID documents. The bill is sitting on Governor Arnold Schwarzeneggers desk; he has until the end of September to either veto it or sign it into law.

Although there are many similar bills, Californias is considered by many to be the one with standard-setting potential. "We think the bill draws the right lines," said Tim Sparapani, legislative council for the American Civil Liberties Union, in Washington. "RFID can be incredibly useful when shipping certain goods, but not when used to track people."

Sparapani points out that California is where a large percentage of the population of the United States lives. If a controversial bill is passed there, other states tend to take notice and follow suit, with industries and vendors taking heed. At least, thats what Sparapani and others hope when it comes to legislation that mandates privacy and security practices around RFID. "[California] really is the bellwether," he said.

/zimages/1/28571.gifThe company that makes human-implantable RFID chips sells its first baby protection system. Click here to read more.

The governors of Georgia, New Hampshire and Wisconsin have signed some form of RFID legislation into law. RFID legislation is dead in the water in Florida, Maryland, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, South Dakota, Texas and Virginia. Some states, such as New Mexico, have reintroduced legislation or have separate bills in process. Rhode Island is the only state to have vetoed RFID legislation.

Many of the state bills create a study group to further understand RFID before actually enacting legislation and set provisions that retailers must notify consumers when RFID is present in or on an item. Such notification legislation often calls for a nationally recognized symbol—something like the cotton symbol on a T-shirt—that will alert shoppers at a glance to the presence of an RFID tag.

But the three bills recently signed into law differ widely. Georgias law, enacted April 12, creates a joint house and senate committee chartered with developing and recommending legislation for the 2006 session. New Hampshires bill, signed into law May 25, requires retailers to inform consumers of the use of RFID tracking devices on products and to affix a label to shipped goods. Wisconsins law, passed May 30, makes it illegal to "require" an implanted RFID chip in citizens.

"To me, it boils down to a privacy issue," said state Rep. Marlin Schneider, the Democrat who authored the Wisconsin bill. "Remember our bill doesnt prohibit the implantation of RFID, it only prohibits implantation without consent."

/zimages/1/28571.gifClick here to read about the Department of Homeland Securitys concerns about RFID.

Californias bill, SB 768, takes a wider view of RFIDs potential areas of regulation. An iteration of a previously introduced bill, SB 768 stipulates that if RFID is used in government documents there must be security and privacy protections for Californians; makes it unlawful to "skim" identity from an RFID chip; and asks the California Research Bureau to review the use of RFID in government documents, according to Simitian.

Simitian said his state—and the nation—is at the threshold of RFIDs proliferating use in government identity documents. The Department of State has mandated RFID chips be added to all U.S. passports by the end of this year. Last year, the U.S. government put into effect its Real ID mandate that requires all states to redesign their drivers licenses by 2008—a move that signals for many of those same advocates the advent of a national RFID-chipped ID card.

"This is the next really big privacy battle, and it will be fought in every state," said the ACLUs Sparapani. "This is the national ID card; every RFID vendor in the country wants in on this."

Next Page: Opposition to chips on passports.