Friday, January 26, 2007

RFID Passports

I just want to put a post on here to make you folks aware of this issue because it's something a lot of people know NOTHING about even though the government has been fully open about this plan for the last two years.

Effective January 1st, the State Department started putting RFID tags in all US Passports. RFIDs use a proximity read system. Bar codes must be in line of sight, and if you've ever used self checkout you know they don't always want to be read. RFIDs have a range of several feet (modestly) and since they use radio waves they can be read through clothes, from inside your backpack, from inside your CAR, etc.

Now, thanks to concerns expressed by privacy experts, the State Department has agreed to put encryption in the chips, so you don't really have to worry about someone stealing your identity from you just by remotely reading your passport, which has ALL your personal information on it (it's your frickin' passport, everything is in there, and will be on the chip too!). Of course, this actually depends on how good the encryption is, and chances are good it won't be fantastic. But it turns out that's kind of a moot point.

Here is the scenario: You are in country X, carrying your passport on your person as you are supposed to in foreign countries. There is a guy on the street pulsing an RFID signal. He picks up your passport. With a steerable antenna (which he could easily hide in his coat pocket) he can isolate you in a crowd. He doesn't know your name, your birthday, or your SS#, but thanks to your passport screaming your location at his reader, he has a pretty damn good idea you're American. Here is a newsflash: American's aren't very liked among terrorists right now.

Do you want to travel to another country with a homing signal that screams "I'm an American"?

What can you do? If you don't have a passport already, but need one to drive into Canada next year, you have no choice but to get a passport that has an RFID tag. There are some steps you can take. The most benign is to make a shield. RFIDs, like anything that uses EM waves for communication, can't transmit or receive while inside a Faraday cage. You can make a wallet (or passport holder) out of household materials, instruction are here. A friend of mine made one of these and swears that her EZ-Pass didn't work when in the wallet (Mission Accomplished). I highly recommend this.

More drastic step? Well, since this is a new tech the State Department has said that a "non-functioning" RFID tag will not invalidate the passport. That said, tampering with a passport carries a heavy fine, so you have to destroy the chip while making it look like an accident. WIRED has an idea: smash the hell out of the ship with a hammer. Risky. That's all I'm saying.

You can read an excellent article about this here.

If this information makes you crap your pants, I suggest you read Edward M. Lerner's "The Day of the RFIDs". You won't sleep well for a week.


Emily said...

Honestly, most Americans will stick out in a foreign country, with or without a RFID signal. I don't think a duct tape and aluminum foil wallet is going to change that.

Edward M. Lerner said...

The location of the short story "The Day of the RFIDs" isn't exactly a secret, but neither will it jump out at you. It can be found standalone at and in my 2006 cyber-fiction collection "Creative Destruction."

Unknown said...

That's right. My blog is less than a month old and I have published authors posting to it. Eat your heart out, people who take their blogs too seriously!

Nice to hear from you Ed!