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by Mike Zazaian October 30, 2006 - 5:03pm, 1 Comment

An RFID tag

After hiring a third-party security committee to explore the dangers and benefits of Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags, the Department of Homeland Security strives to keep an incriminating report out of the public eye.

According to Jim Harper, a Cato Institute fellow and member of the security committee, the U.S. department of homeland security has refused to officially publish the committee’s report, which details the dangers of RFID implementation. Harper fears that enormous investments already made in Radio Frequency Identification in both the public and private sectors may causing pundits to promote the technology to the detriment of the public:

The powers that be took a good run at deep-sixing this report. There’s such a strongly held consensus among industry and DHS that RFID is the way to go that getting people off of that and getting them to examine the technology is very hard to do.

The 13-page report suggests that while there are number of benefits to using RFID technology, such as the quality, speed and ease of information transfer, these don’t outweigh the potential dangers that RFID poses to the American public. In addition to the widely-known issues of skimming and eavesdropping, in which unauthorized third-parties can illegally gain access to private information, the report stipulates that RFID may bring unwarranted surveillance by the government itself. From the report:

In a visual ID-check environment, a person may be briefly identified but then forgotten, rendering them anonymous for practical purposes. In a radio ID-check environment, by contrast, a person’s entry into a particular area can easily be recorded and the information permanently stored and repeatedly shared. In this way, RFID may convert identification based security into an effective surveillance program of all people passing certain locations.

This concern is especially pertinent as new federal laws will require American citizens to use either a passport or PASS Card, an RFID-enable identification card that will soon be issued, to re-enter the country by air in 2007. By 2008 these laws will apply also to citizens crossing borders at Canada and Mexico, even when just crossing over for a couple of hours. And while the increased security offered by such measures are necessary, inclusion of RFID in PASS Cards and upcoming passports will allow the government to track movement of individuals in and out of the country. A report issued within the DHS stipulates that such data would be shared within the department for up to 50 years, and would be available to both domestic and international law enforcement agencies during that time. While there are obvious security benefits to having such information on file, such activity would mean flagrant disregard for privacy rights granted by the constitution.

Of course the government may opt from keeping such records on file, but it should be questioned whether the ability to track citizens in this manner, regardless of the usage of such data, inherently jeopardizes personal liberties. Ultimately the report finds that the benefits of RFID can be found in other technologies such as contact chips, bar codes, magnetic stripes, which don’t carry the same ominous, big brother stigma:

RFID technology may have a small benefit in terms of speeding identification processes, but it is no more resistant to forgery or tampering than any other digital technology. Use of RFID would predispose identification systems to surveillance uses…The Department of Homeland Security should consider carefully whether to use RFID to identify and track individuals, given the variety of technologies that may serve the same goals with less risk to privacy and related interests.

Even with this barage of warnings the momentum behind RFID may be too great to stop. With the US requiring all countries on its visa-waiver program to use RFID in their passports, and implementing RFID in its own IDs soon, the world may have to deal with the dangers of the technology regardless of the outcome. Upcoming RFID tribulations are perhaps most poignantly foreshadowed by the Department of Homeland Security’s ignorance of a document that they themselves commissioned, a document in which the following headline is displayed in glaring bold letters:

Recommendation: RFID Should be Disfavored for Human Tracking.

Draft report from the DHS Emerging Applications and Technology Subcommittee
Privacy report from the Department of Homeland Security
Via Wired
More information on PASS cards from the U.S. State Department