California lawmakers try again to create RFID protections

Splits bill that was vetoed by Schwarzenegger last fall into five parts

The California legislature this month is expected to vote on several bills that would regulate the use of radio frequency identification (RFID) technology in government documents. Similar legislation was approved by the body last year only to be vetoed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in October.

Schwarzenegger rejected the Identity Information Protection Act of 2006  because he felt that it could be overly restrictive to state agencies.

The 2006 bill's sponsor, State Sen. Joe Simitian, resubmitted the legislation in five separate bills submitted late last year and early this year. Currently, the bills are working their way through various legislative committees.

Two of the bills will impose a three-year moratorium on the use of the technology in California driver's licenses and in public school ID cards, while a third will create interim privacy safeguards for any existing RFID-enabled government IDs, such as those used by students in the state college system. A fourth bill would make it a crime to "skim," or surreptitiously read, data from an RFID document, and the final bill would prohibit forced RFID chip implants in people

The latter bill, similar to legislation passed last year in Wisconsin,  was filed to address fears that companies might try to force their employees to undergo an RFID implantation, noted Simitian.

Simitian said he hopes the legislation has better success this time around.  The bill "got all the way to the governor's desk, and there was a last-minute setback there. But we're building on a foundation. What we achieved last year was a substantial accomplishment. That's a good place to start," he said.

A Schwarzenegger spokeswoman this week said the governor had yet to take a position on any of the new RFID bills.

Even if Schwarzenegger signs the bills, California residents would still need more protection, said Katherine Albrecht, a consumer rights advocate. She noted that RFID tracking technology could prove tempting for abuse by state government officials. "Government officials would love the ability to secretly identify political opponents, protesters at peace rallies or anyone else engaged in peaceable First Amendment-protected activities," she said. RFID enabled documents could be a means for such practices, she said.

Michael Shamos, a professor who specializes in security issues at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, said that the legislation doesn't deal comprehensively with RFID privacy issues beyond the government sector, said. However, he added, "it's a good statute."

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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