Passport card with chatty RFID chip draws privacy ire

New chipped passcards are unencrypted and readable up to 30 feet away

A proposed new RFID-enabled passport card intended for use by Americans frequently traveling to Canada, Mexico, Bermuda and the Caribbean poses serious security and privacy risks for users, the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) warned this week.

Among the concerns are the potential for the government and private entities to use the card for location tracking and the relative ease that the card can be manipulated for identity theft purposes, the CDT said.

The Washington-based think tank's warning was prompted by a final ruling in the Federal Register from the U.S. Department of State on Dec. 31 calling for the use of so-called vicinity read radio frequency identification (RFID) technology on proposed new passport cards. The department first announced plans to use RFID chips for new passport cards back in October 2006 and has been going through a process of collecting and responding to comments on its plans.

The identification cards would be needed by residents who don't have passports for verifying their identity at land, air and sea border crossings. They are to be issued as part of the Departments of State and Homeland Security's Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, or WHTI. The credit card-size passport cards will use vicinity-read RFID technology, allowing customs and border protection officials to read them from at least 20 to 30 feet away. The goal is to substantially reduce wait times at the border by allowing officials to access and queue up an individual's information even before he reaches the official.

The approach is substantially different from the proximity-read technology being used in U.S. electronic passports, and it offers fewer protections, according to Ari Schwartz, deputy director at the CDT. Electronic passports contain all of the same identification data that appears on the first page of a passport, and includes a digital photograph and a digital signature. But the information on those chips is encrypted at all times and can only be accessed by physically swiping the card through a reader at the border crossing.

In contrast, said Schwartz, the proposed RFID-enabled passport cards can be read from a distance, and without user notice, consent or control over when the information is collected. Additionally, information from the card is transmitted in the clear -- that is, without encryption. The RFID technology itself is also more susceptible to electronic eavesdropping and hacking, which makes the cards less tamper resistant compared to electronic passports, he said.

"So you have a situation where you are sending out identity information in the clear over a long distance," using a less-than-secure technology, Schwartz said.

The State Department itself has said that the passport cards will not contain any identity information such as name, date of birth, Social Security number or place of birth. Instead, all it will contain is a unique identifying number that will be used to access a cardholder's identifying information, which is stored separately on a secure Customs and Border Patrol system.

But the identification number itself is personal information, the CDT noted, because it is unique and corresponds to a computer file with personal identification information in a government database.

The use of passport cards will also require a separate infrastructure from that used for electronic passports and is unlikely to significantly speed up wait times at the border, Schwartz said.

David Williams, vice president for policy at Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) in Washington, said the government's decision to go ahead with the RFID-enabled passport cards "was disappointing but not unexpected. ... Once the government gets something in its head, it usually doesn't change anything."

Like Schwartz, Williams also expressed concern over the potential for such cards to be tampered with relative ease. "We are very concerned about any kind of RFID technology for any kind of identification [purposes]," from both a cost and security perspective, he said. The fact that the cards can be read from a distance, makes it a more attractive hacking target, he said. "RFIDs are great for tracking packages or for going through tolls. The problems begin when you attach it to a person's identity."

In its final ruling in the Federal Register, the State Department acknowledged that it had received over 4,000 comments from a range of individuals and organizations, including Sens. Hillary Clinton and Charles Schumer of New York, Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, and Rep. Louise Slaughter of New York. "The vast majority of the comments were generated from an e-petition launched by CAGW opposing the choice of technology," the ruling noted. "While State and DHS appreciate the comments received, the vast majority reflected an improper understanding of the business model that WHTI is designed to meet and how the technology selected would actually be implemented."

In making its case for vicinity-read cards, the department noted that the unique identifying information stored on such cards had meaning only within the secure CBP system and was useless to anybody when taken out of context. It also added that protective sleeves would be provided to cardholders to protect against the card number being inadvertently transmitted and said that use of the card was entirely optional. That claim in turn raises further questions. The technology as described would meet the description of a Faraday cage, but it's unclear whether an expenditure for such technology is explicitly covered in the budget.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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