Report warns RFID is not best for tracking people

Supporters, critics disagree about whether the technology can protect privacy

Radio frequency identification technology in secure travel documents could harm national security and personal privacy, according to a draft report the Homeland Security Department released last week.

DHS and other federal agencies use RFID to efficiently track and identify equipment and other goods, wrote the report’s authors, who are members of DHS’ Data Privacy and Integrity Advisory Committee’s Emerging Applications and Technology Subcommittee. But they warned that using RFID technology to track people is not a good idea.

Without formidable safeguards, RFID technology in identification cards and tokens could allow others to track individuals’ movements, profile their activities, and manipulate identification and other information, the report states. RFID will make people more prone to surveillance and less aware that others are tracking them. Users also won’t know what information they are sharing, the report states.

The report relates to the proposed People Access Security Service (PASS) cards, which DHS and the State Department want to create as an alternative to passports for U.S. travelers returning from Canada or Mexico. PASS cards would meet the requirements of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, which mandates that by Jan. 1, 2008, anyone entering the United States, including U.S. citizens, have secure travel documents that prove their identity and citizenship.

For the PASS cards, State wants to use contactless smart cards that contain a small microprocessor that transmits encrypted data on the users’ cards at a range of 5 inches. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency wants border inspectors to be able to read PASS cards as far as 30 feet away, which would require RFID tags embedded in the cards. A tag transmits a 96-digit unique identification number that links to personal information stored in a secure, central database.

RFID offers little advantage in processing speed compared with contactless smart cards, bar codes and other technologies, the report states. RFID also does not provide reliable identification because the tag alone does not identify a person, it states. RFID doesn’t offer better anti-forgery or anti-tampering features than other technologies do, and its use of radio adds risks that nonradio systems don’t have, according to the report.

Industry experts have mixed opinions about the report. Neville Pattinson, director of business development, technology and government affairs at Axalto, which makes contactless smart cards, said the use of low-end RFID is inappropriate for any federal identity document program.

But others discredited the draft report. Timothy Heffernan, director of government relations and public affairs at Symbol Technologies, which makes RFID products, said the report has a lot of ill-

informed data on how the technology works. RFID tags adequately protect users’ privacy and have plenty of safeguards to prevent tampering and forgery, Heffernan said. Tags don’t make it easier to put users under surveillance, he added.

DHS takes the report’s recommendations seriously, said Jim Williams, director of DHS’ U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology program, which screens for terrorists among foreign travelers.

Williams said he disagrees with the report’s contention that RFID doesn’t offer more benefits compared with other technologies. RFID offers abilities that DHS doesn’t have today, such as being able to send traveler information to guard stations before travelers arrive and filter those records through criminal and terrorist watch lists, he said.

RFID would also allow DHS to record the entry of people, which is important for security, Williams said. The federal government has used RFID successfully for years, he added. Trusted traveler programs such as NEXUS, Secure Electronic Network for Travelers Rapid Inspection, and Free and Secure Trade all use RFID technology to process travelers quickly while maintaining border security.

The full privacy committee is scheduled to review the draft at its quarterly public meeting in San Francisco June 7.


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7 steps to secure RFID and protect privacy

The technology subcommittee of the Homeland Security Department’s Data Privacy and Integrity Advisory Committee opposes using radio-frequency identification technology to track individuals, citing security and privacy risks. The subcommittee’s draft report on RFID suggests best practices for DHS if it decides to use RFID technology to track people:

Those best practices are:

  • Notifying people about how and why RFID technology is being used, including who is collecting what kind of information.

  • Giving people an opportunity to opt out of programs that use RFID and to turn off RFID tags.

  • Protecting RFID readers and data by enabling only authorized readers to read DHS tags.

  • Educating the public about how DHS uses RFID securely and how the technology works.

The report also suggests other methods to improve RFID security and privacy protections, including:
  • Encrypting data on the tags in transit and when stored in a database.

  • Authenticating users to prevent unauthorized reading of tags or writing to them.

  • Incorporating signal-blocking technology, such as that used in e-passports.

— Michael Arnone

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