advocates are appalled by the ongoing plan to equip all U.S. passports
with RFID chips that can be read surreptitiously from a distance
U.S. is moving closer to requiring citizens to have an identity card
that could be scanned from a distance. By the end of 2005, U.S.
passports will come with embedded radio-tag chips — and Congress
is considering mandating similar technology in driver's licenses. The
government argues that the changes will make America safer from
terrorists. But privacy advocates are appalled, fearing that the
information could be stolen and misused.
The story begins in
2002, when Congress passed the Enhanced Border Security Act. One
provision requires that new passports be equipped with “biometric
identifiers” capable of being read by machines — in essence, a chip
with personal identification information. The law also said foreigners
who want to come to the U.S. without a visa (as is allowed for visitors
from Europe, Japan, and some other countries) must carry a passport
with the same technology.
POLICY LAUNDERING. But the law
didn't specify what information should be on the chip, or what type of
chip must be included. In what critics call policy laundering, that
decision was ostensibly left to an obscure U.N.-affiliated agency, the
International Civil Aviation Organization. For the Bush Administration,
“the advantage of using the ICAO is that they have none of the
transparency of a U.S. government agency,” says Barry Steinhardt,
director of the “American Civil Liberty Union”'s technology and liberty
program. Groups like the ACLU were shut out of the process.
ICAO's decision, which is widely viewed as reflecting the “State
Dept”.'s own views, turned out to be very troubling to privacy
advocates. Critics charge that by using the excuse that the standard
was set by an international body, the State Dept. can push a technology
that wouldn't have been acceptable if openly debated in the U.S.
For one thing, the Biometric
identifier the ICAO picked was facial recognition, which is seen as
less reliable than alternatives like retina scans. More worrisome, the
ICAO specified that the information be stored in a “contactless” chip
— one that can be read from a distance. Many companies, such as
Wal-Mart (WMT ), are using such radio frequency identification (RFID)
chips to track inventory. Putting the chips in passports would enable
the government to read personal information from more than 50 feet away. [Privacy Digest]