California bill would restrict RFID use

State could be sending signal that data privacy matters

California Office of Privacy Protection

A California bill restricting the state government's use of radio frequency identification tags could be a sign of things to come.

The Identity Information Protection Act of 2005 is one of several proposed pieces of legislation in 10 states that deal with emerging uses of RFID, a signaling technology that has existed for decades.

Like California, other states are also grappling with the growing use of RFID technology and related privacy concerns. A South Dakota bill prohibits anyone from implanting an RFID device in a person. A Rhode Island bill bars government agencies from using RFID to track the movement or identity of an employee, student or client as a condition of obtaining a benefit or service.

Most of the bills require agencies or companies to inform citizens or customers of circumstances in which RFID technology is used.

California's bill, which the state assembly is now considering following its passage in the Senate, would go further. It would prohibit state, county and municipal governments and agencies from issuing identification documents with RFID tags that transmit personal information or enable such data to be scanned remotely.

The bill permits the use of RFID only in certain places such as prisons, hospitals, public health facilities or toll gates. Although the bill does not address commercial uses, it does give state lawmakers leeway to pass legislation allowing future uses of RFID.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has not taken a position on the bill, according to his press office.

Pam Greenberg, program principal at the National Conference of State Legislatures, said states' interest in RFID is growing, but in privacy matters, California usually influences policy discussions at the national level. "They certainly do tend to be in front in terms of privacy legislation," she said.

Democratic state Sen. Joe Simitian, who sponsored the RFID bill, said the legislation would help protect the privacy, personal safety and financial security of Californians.

"RFID technology is not in and of itself the issue," Simitian wrote in an e-mail message. "The issue is whether and under what circumstances the government should be allowed to impose this technology on its residents. This bill provides a thoughtful and rational policy framework for making those decisions."

Nicole Ozer, technology and civil liberties policy director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, which helped draft the bill, said RFID privacy concerns came to the forefront when a rural school district 50 miles north of Sacramento was going to require students to use identification cards with RFID chips. Ozer said parents protested and the program was halted. "It's one thing if it's inventory or cattle, but people are not inventory or cattle," Ozer said.

People must take privacy and security precautions when they carry documents that have embedded RFID chips, Ozer said, adding that RFID does not belong in state-issued personal identification documents. California, which has the third highest rate of identity theft in the nation, reported about 39,000 victims of that crime in 2003.

The California bill is not unreasonable, Ozer said, because it creates guidelines for appropriate government use of RFID. "It's really a stop-and-think bill," she said.

Industry interests oppose the bill. HID, an Irvine, Calif.-based manufacturer of contactless access-control cards and readers, joined several other companies that sent letters to state lawmakers explaining the merits of RFID technology.

"While HID supports the basic intent of the bill to protect the privacy of people in California and prevent identity theft, we do not believe California Senate Bill 682 will accomplish these objectives," said Holly Sacks, HID's executive vice president. "Our primary concern is the appropriate use of technology in secure identification applications."

HID's cards transmit no data other than programmed serial numbers, which only specially designed readers can interpret, Sacks said. The numbers are transmitted to a central access-control database that contains personal identity information.

Sacks said the serial number and its relation to the database are similar to a license plate number and license-holder information in a centralized state motor vehicle database. "The difference is that the license plate number is fully and publicly visible," she said, "whereas the serial number programmed on a card must be read by specialized RFID reader technology at very close range."


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Proposal for acceptable uses of RFID in California

The Identity Information Protection Act of 2005 would restrict any state, county, municipal government or agency from issuing an identity document containing a "contactless integrated circuit or other device that uses radio waves to broadcast personal information or to enable personal information to be scanned remotely."

The bill allows exceptions, however, for radio frequency identification technology used to:

Proposal for acceptable uses of RFID in California

The Identity Information Protection Act of 2005 would restrict any state, county, municipal government or agency from issuing an identity document containing a "contactless integrated circuit or other device that uses radio waves to broadcast personal information or to enable personal information to be scanned remotely."

The bill allows exceptions, however, for radio frequency identification technology used to:

  • Collect tolls on roads and bridges.
  • Identify people incarcerated in state prisons, county jails, juvenile facilities and mental health facilities.
  • Identify children 4 years old or younger cared for in government- run hospitals, clinics or medical facilities.
  • Identify adult patients in government-run hospitals, ambulatory surgery centers, oncology and dialysis clinics.
  • Identify people for access to secure public buildings.
  • Support already established contactless integrated systems that state, county or municipal governments or agencies began using before Jan. 1, 2006.

— Dibya Sarkar

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