SECURITY: RFID Passports : Polemics

RFID passports
A small part of the battle in the war against RFID beacons in US passports has been won. The State Department now admits that their previous RFID proposal would put Americans at risk and is now considering other options.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that the State Department continues to blindly cling to the false promise of planting RFID chips in passports.

In order to make RFID technology safer, the State Department claims to be planning two things. First, they say will put a metallic lining inside RFID passport covers — a tinfoil hat, so to speak — to prevent the passport from being snooped when closed. In addition, they claim the RFID chip itself will be encrypted so that it cannot be read when the passport is open: the chip will only broadcast your personal information once it’s been swiped through an optical reader.

New York Times

For more info read about What is RFID?


A Radio Frequency IDentification chip is a tiny, flat microchip with a built-in antenna. Although they come in many shapes and sizes, they all respond in the same way: when a radio signal is sent out to the chip, the RFID is activated and broadcasts the information it contains.
Terrorist Beacons: Close up, the information broadcast from the RFID chip can be read by anyone with an inexpensive electronic reader. Farther away, the RFID chip can be activated enough to identify the nationality of passport holder.

Think of an RFID chip as an electronic version of the children’s game Marco Polo. When the RFID reader broadcasts ‘Marco’, the RFID chip replies ‘Polo’.

RFID is used by many manufacturers to track their supply chain, making sure that shipment ‘A’ gets to retailer ‘B’. Problems with RFID begin when the chips are used to track individual items, like clothing or passports. Few of us want to live in a ‘Minority Report’-like world where the RFID chips in our clothing broadcast when and where we bought them.

You have probably already heard of RFID passports, in the more commonly used appelation of “biometric passports”.

The RFID chip the US State Department wants to put in passports holds 64kb of information, five and a half times the amount of read-only data the Apollo 11 computer needed to put a man on the moon. This chip will contain all of the information currently on US passports, including a photograph. When an RFID reader says ‘Marco’ to the passport chip, the chip will broadcast the entire contents of your passport in a digital, copy-able format. The more power the reader sends out to the chip, the further away the chip can be read.

A few thousand dollars and a little technical know-how is all it takes to buy and modify an RFID reader, a trifling sum for professional kidnappers, organized crime, or terrorist groups.

One of the US State Department’s own RFID subcontractors has criticized the scheme, stating the RFID plan “disregards a basic privacy approach and leaves out the basic security methods we would have expected to have been incorporated for the security of the documents”.

Furthurmore, the US has required that, as of October 2005, citizens of all other coutries have RFID passports as well before obtaining visas.

Right now all countries in EU already have done the necessary, and even if some countries will probably not have everything ready by October, very soon all europeans will have biometric passports.

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