Another Step Closer   no comments

Posted at 1:51 am in Privacy

This editorial originally appeared on in August 2007.

I spent the last few days at the annual meeting of Police Futurists International, which is held in conjunction with the World Future Society’s annual conference. This year, we were in Minneapolis. One of the presentations I attended discussed the use of RFID devices. “RFID” stands for Radio Frequency Identification, and most of us know them as those anti-theft tags concealed inside merchandise that are supposed to be deactivated when we buy the item. When they’re not, an alarm sounds as we exit the store. In some businesses, the alarms are so commonplace that no one even looks up when they go off.

What made the news most recently was the announcement that my home state of Washington was going to start placing RFID tags in its driver licenses, starting in 2008. This came a week after I received my new passport in the mail. The new document has a small gold symbol below the words “United States of America,” and indicates that it, too, contains an RFID chip.

Futurism is bright and cheery or dark and scary, and sometimes a little of each. It’s the practice of making a best guess at will happen in the years to come. Movies tend to get a little ahead of themselves with regard to the advancement of technology and the social implications of it. A film shown at the 1939 (this was the year that The Wizard of Oz premiered) World’s Fair in New York depicted the America of 1960 as having flying buses, elevated trains that operated without human pilots and dropped you right at your office door, and concentrated food that didn’t require refrigeration, cooking, or even chewing. 2001: A Space Odyssey was released in 1968, and forecast a space station that looked like an airport hotel, routine scheduled flights (on PanAm, no less) between the space station and earth, and full-screen video phones, not to mention a talking computer that was self-aware. Of course, The Terminator and 1984 showed a gloomier view, where machines had taken over the world and were working on exterminating all of us meat puppets, or a totalitarian society in which everyone was watched, all the time, and the range of creative thought was progressively narrowed in order to maintain government control.

Futurists claim to base their studies on nascent technology and social practices, with an eye on how and how fast things have progressed thus far. Some of these are kind of “out there,” in my view. I heard one talk where the speaker not only forecast the advent of a Star Trek-like computer where all input and most output was speech-based, but said that this would lead to a society where conventional literacy was obsolete (and he characterized this as a good thing). The RFID stuff seemed more plausible to me, mainly because there is considerable economic incentive to make it happen.

RFID chips come in two main flavors: active and passive. The passive ones are a lot cheaper and much more common. A passive RFID device can be very small–some will not cover the mint year on a penny–and contains no power supply. It draws its power from the radio energy of the scanner or “interrogator” that reads it. When the device is energized by the right type of electromagnetic juice, it transmits the data encoded on it. The data is normally a short (up to 60 or so) string of numbers, although the more complex and expensive chips can hold considerably more data. Most of the RFID chips in use hold a number which is keyed to a more complete record in a database located elsewhere. The RFID chip that is implanted under the skin of my dog holds a number that corresponds to the information in the pet locator’s computer, which includes the dog’s name, my name, address, phone number, etc. If you scan the number but don’t have access to the database, the number isn’t going to be much use to you. The chip proposed for the Washington driver license will hold the license number, which will allow someone with access to the Washington Department of Licensing database to get the record associated with that license number.

The RFID device in my passport is a little more complex. The page of my passport that has my photo and other identifying information has a “machine readable” section at the bottom. Optical scanners at many passport control stations in this country and others can interpret this information and save the border security officer the time required to type the same information into a terminal and determine, despite my devilishly good looks and dazzling sophistication, that I am not an international spy with a license to kill. The RFID tag contains exactly the same information. Thus, is someone was to get close enough to interrogate the tag, they would have the essential details contained in my passport. The cover of the passport is supposed to have metal threads that will act as a Faraday cage and thwart efforts to do this, but anecdotal evidence indicates that it not only can be done, but has.

To fan the flames of discontent further, the inclusion of an RFID device is one of the measures recommended for identification documents in compliance with the REAL ID Act, which, at this writing, has been put off until the end of 2009.

Detractors of the new Washington driver licenses, which include, naturally, the ACLU, say that there is a difference between handing someone your identification and knowing that they have access to the information it contains, and having someone be able to get that information without your knowledge. This is not a far-fetched scenario. If the scanner at Wal-Mart can detect from 20 feet away that you’ve got the new Disney DVD in your shopping cart, it would be pretty easy for the same scanner to pick off your license number from the RFID chip embedded in the license. And it may already be possible to interrogate such RFID devices from the side of the road, logging the ID of every driver and passenger that passes a checkpoint, and checking them against a wanted persons database. Some people are already upset about automated license plate readers, calling them an invasion of privacy.

Personally, I don’t get too bothered about all of this. I just put my own name into Zabasearch and came up with 75 hits, four of which are me. For less than ten bucks, anyone who wants to can get my date of birth and address, and for a few dollars more, a lot of other stuff. People who subscribe to data mining services like Accurint can get a whole dossier for a quarter–I’ve seen mine. The only way to avoid having this information available is to go off the grid and live below the radar for a long time, and most of us can’t or don’t want to do that. Identity theft is a real concern, but I check my credit card and bank statements carefully, and order up a new, free credit report every four months (each of the three major credit bureaus has to give you a free report once a year if you ask – just ask a different one every four months). But I can see how this would bother a lot of folks.

I didn’t get in to active RFID tags, which actually broadcast data to a dedicated receiver, a cell tower, or even a satellite. Yes, they exist, and that is a scary proposition.

Welcome to the Brave New World. It isn’t the world that 2001: A Space Odyssey or 1984 led us to expect, and yet you could argue that it’s a little of both.

Written by Tim Dees on August 2nd, 2007