Security Advocates Fight Passport RFID Proposal

Security advocates warn "vicinity-read" RFID technology threatens passport holders' privacy.

Some members of Congress and security advocates are strongly objecting to a new rule put out by the U.S. State Department on Dec. 31, 2007 , mandating the use of "vicinity-read" RFID technology in passport cards that will be issued for Americans that travel to Canada , Mexico , Bermuda and the Caribbean .

The problem with vicinity-read radio-frequency identification, opponents say, is that the technology-which enables a reader to extract data from an RFID chip at a distance of up to 20 feet-poses undue security and privacy threats. The Center for Democracy and Technology said on its Web site that the Department of State's new rules call for vicinity-read RFID technology without the use of encryption.

"This means the card will be able to be read remotely, at a long distance," the Center for Democracy and Technology said in a post on its Web site. "CDT strongly objected to the use of this technology-developed for tracking inventory, not people-because it is inherently insecure and poses threats to personal privacy, including identity theft, [and] location tracking by government and commercial entities outside the border control context."

The passport card is a result of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, or WHTI, which requires citizens traveling between the United States, Canada, Mexico, Central and South America, the Caribbean or Bermuda by land or sea-including ferries-to present a valid U.S. passport.

In October 2006 the State Department issued Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that included a public comment period, which closed Jan. 7, 2007 . According to the State Department's Federal Register documentation, more than 4,000 comments were received regarding the proposed rule.

Among the respondents were four members of Congress: Sens. Hillary Clinton and Charles Schumer of New York , Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont , and Rep. Louise Slaughter of New York . The governments of Canada and two of its provinces, Manitoba and New Brunswick, also weighed in, as did a Native American government (Haudenosaunee Confederation of New York) the U.S. Postal Service, the Air Transport Association, more than two dozen technology companies, and dozens of city, county and municipal governments.

According to the Federal Register the vast majority of comments were generated from an e-petition circulated by Citizens Against Government Waste, a group that opposes the State Department's choice in technology for a passport card (though not the idea of the card itself).

"All four members of Congress, as well as technology, security, and privacy groups are concerned with the choice of -vicinity read' RFID technology for the passport card," reads the Federal Register's account.

"The opinion expressed by many commenters is that vicinity read technology is not as secure as the proximity read technology currently used in the United States e-passport. In their opinion the use of vicinity read technology could result in the unauthorized reading of information that would lead to identity theft and tracking of United States citizens by terrorists and the government."

The comments also suggested that implementing two different technologies at border crossings-one to read the e-passport books and the other to read the e-passport card-is redundant, according to the Register.

The rational behind the State Department's persistence in using vicinity-read RFID technology, according to a Department of Homeland Security Fact Sheet, is that it provides "significant advantages."

"Vicinity RFID provides a security benefit," reads the online Fact Sheet. "The speed of vicinity RFID will allow CBP [Customs and Border Protection] officers to quickly read the identification of all travelers carrying passport cards, allowing DHS to perform terrorist watch list checks. [At the same time] multiple cards can be read at a distance and simultaneously with vicinity RFID technology, allowing an entire car full of people to be processed at once."

The State Department said in a Jan. 10 Associated Press article that privacy protections will be built into the card, and that the RFID chip embedded in the card will not contain biographical information. The State Department is also tapping the card vendor-which hasn't been decided on, or at least disclosed-to provide protective sleeves for the cards to prevent them from being read at a distance.

Travelers have until Jan. 31 to get their documentation together. After that date a verbal declaration of U.S. citizenship will no longer be allowed for Americans returning to the U.S. from Canada , Mexico , the Caribbean and Bermuda .