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Friday, October 07, 2005

RFID passports, soon everyone will know

Sensors that can remotely read your passport may once have seemed like Orwellian hyperbole ...

RFID (radio frequency identification), which makes remote data reading possible, coupled with biometric data, is being introduced this October on all US passports. All countries with US visa wavers are to have them by October 2006.

Biometric data, in case you don’t know, is information like: name, birthdate, place of birth, issuing office, digitized version of the passport photo, and fingerprints.

Much of this information is already on your passport, but RFID in this scenario allows vital information to be gathered and stored in a database from a distance, using a remote scanner at entry points to cooperating countries.

The inefficacy of this technology has been obfuscated behind the usual guise of “safer” democracies.

While most people have been blinded by loaded jingoistic jargon, civil liberties watchdogs like the ACLU have been quick to point how easy it is to abuse this technology. In live demos by them and technology hackers in Holland, these chips have been successfully scanned with equipment as small as laptop computers.

ACLU on RFID passports

RFID passports in Holland

While technology procurement lobbyists in the US contend that this information can only be gathered from a distance of 10 cm, the above mentioned tests have proven it is possible from a range of one meter, and with the meteoric leaps of technology nowadays, it doesn’t take a computer geek or a doomsday prophet to realize the inevitable.

For example, Bluetooth devices can be cracked from up to a mile away, when they were supposed to have a readable radius of 328 feet. Even though RFID for passports is passive (meaning it does not emit, like say a cell phone or Bluetooth) the demos carried out with today’s budding technology point to a future where passive chips will be unsafe at larger and larger distances).

And, passport RFID is supposed to be encrypted, but it doesn't take huge leap of imagination to realize that encrypted or not, this information is in human hands and can be passed on. Once this has been cracked all the passports previously issued are then unsafe, and the only solution would be to issue new ones. One more strike against RFID.

Another purpose of this technology is to make a safer, less forgeable passport. It is also to streamline exits and entries into visa waver countries; also to ultimately collect and store massive amounts of information.

Less-forgeable precludes unforgeable, and what can happen will happen.

How this will streamline exits and entries into countries is beyond me. Because of worries about illegal data-scanning, passports will now be issued with special fiber-weave covers (though, this aren’t fully scan proof either). That means you have to open the passport in order to scan it.

So that debunks the claim that passports with contact chips, like the Smartcard (which cannot be scanned from a distance, and can hold the same biometric data as RFID chips), are unwieldy and less efficient. You have to physically open the passport in both cases.

When the projected database is complete, just imagine if massive amounts of information fall into unfriendly hands. Individual democracy, our “western” style democracy, is tenuous as it is.

So, you ask, is all this just gratuitous journalism on my part?

No, and here’s why it fits neatly into my guirilandia, perpetual tourist theme:

I’m writing from out of the country, and you’d have to have the perception of a rock not to notice the political climate. Latent and overt hostility is palpable in the most everyday interactions, everywhere. Just look at what happened in Bali. Pick your enemy of choice: occidental, infidel, American, Muslim, Jewish, left-winger, pro-choice… depending on where you are and who you are with, your privacy should be as sacred as your right to assert yourself.

To how many people do you want to advertise the fact that you’re an American? Or a Brit? Shouldn’t that be your prerogative? Put it this way, what if you’re at political rally, critical of so and so; are about to enter a medina in so and so... and someone with the right equipment is able to sweep your personal information?


About a year ago the Baja Beach Club here in Barcelona started implanting its VIP patrons with RFID chips to authenticate them and streamline their entry into the club (some were guests on Gran Hermano, Spain’s version of Big Brother, appropriately enough). These VIPs, these tragically trendy clubbers, are now in the matrix of cool, or “lo guay”.

Everybody knows someone who has a tattoo or two they regret. I bet in the future, if the RFID implant trend continues, there's going be some sagging hipsters who will say things like:

“Gee, getting implanted with the Club Sheik-Yer-Bootay’s RFID fast pass chip seemed like such a good idea, at the time… now the hip place to go is Suavio’s Celestial Stride Piano Lounge, and they don’t let anyone in with the Bootay chip … it’s so like turn of the century.”

There is a solution, however.

Tin man: sartorial trend-setter for the 21st century

Apparently a simple aluminum bag - like the moisture proof bag you buy your potato chips in - is good enough to block all radio wave signals.

No one ever thought the Tin Man’s sartorial style was actually 70 years ahead of his time.

I see the intellectual elite within the next twenty years wearing stylized full aluminum armor, carrying around aluminum lunch boxes shielding their RFID-laden documents and purchases.

Living below the radar won’t be impossible, but it might actually make you more conspicuous.


A quick demonstration on how to block radio signals in which you witness my totally uncool lo-fi cell phone.

Phone without aluminum shielding. Notice the full signal bar on the left.

Regular old Lay’s potato bag, contents eaten.

Cell phone in the bag. Notice there is no signal at all. This is in the same exact geographic location as before, when the signal was strong outside the bag. Amazing!


Unless the passport becomes a de facto national ID it isn’t a major civil liberties concern until the technology starts getting implemented in Driver’s licenses, for example.

But still, D&G better get onto aluminum accessories trend because there’s lots of people that like to travel in peace (and style).