Communications and Media

Critics Say ID Chips Threaten Privacy

Imagine the government planting radio microchips on citizens so they can be tracked electronically wherever they go. Critics say this spy-thriller technology is close to reality with the new microchip embedded identification documents issued by the State Department and other government agencies.

Radio-Tagged Identification for Better Border Crossings

Passport cards, enhanced driver's licenses and other travel documents now contain radio frequency identity chips (RFID). Similar to bar tags on groceries read by scanners at the checkout, the RFID tags emit a unique radio identifier when scanned by an electromagnetic reader. The identifiers are used to retrieve computerized data about travelers such as their name and photo.

On June 1, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) started requiring Americans and other travelers to present passports or RFID-tagged travel cards to enter the United States by land and sea. Government officials say that RFID cards increase border crossing efficiency and accuracy by eliminating the need for CBP officers to manually enter information into computers. Crossings are faster because multiple cards can be read as vehicles approach checkpoints.

RFID Travel Documents Pose Serious Privacy Risks

Critics say a big problem with RFID cards is that they can be read electronically from a distance of several yards by anyone with a cheap electronic scanner. Hackers can scan RFID numbers to commit forgery, identity theft or stalking. Some fear the government could use RFID technology to track and monitor citizens without their knowledge or consent.

Government officials contend that privacy is protected because the RFID cards contain no personal information themselves and their RFID numbers link to records in secure government databases. Also, the RFID passport cards are issued with special sleeves that block the transmission of the RFID signal when the card is in the sleeve.

Laws to Protect RFID Privacy

States are passing laws to address RFID privacy concerns. Washington passed a law last year that outlaws the unauthorized reading of RFID tags to commit crimes like fraud, identity theft or stalking. Another Washington law goes into effect later this month that prohibits anyone from scanning an RFID tag except the business or agency that issued the tag. California has a law that prohibits anyone from remotely reading an RFID identification document without the owner's consent. Several other states are considering legislation to protect privacy as the use of RFID technology becomes increasingly common.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • Is RFID technology used in other types of identification devices, such as employer ID badges or time clock cards? Are these as safe as government-issued cards from hackers and identity thieves?
  • Do issuers of RFID-equipped cards have to tell you that your card has an RFID chip? How can I tell if an ID card has a chip?
  • What's the state of the law on access to information gathered by such chips? Isn't this similar to issues raised by radio transmitters used on tollway systems?
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