Wired.com is reporting that the state of California has abruptly tabled legislation that might have allowed RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) chips to be embedded into the state’s drivers’ licenses. Privacy activists are hailing the suspension of this plan as a victory against government intrusion in people’s lives and believe that these chips, which are actually tiny radio transceivers that can be accessed over the open airwaves without the consent of the person carrying the document, will eventually be used to track people’s movements without their knowledge. Currently, three states, Michigan, Vermont and Washington, already have RFID chips in their licenses and are already sharing information collected by the DMV, including basic identity data and photos, with the Department of Homeland Security via a national database. Scary, right?
To understand what the Department of Homeland Security is doing with this data, you need to know that since June 1, 2009 the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI) has required that a passport be used to cross our Northern and Southern borders. Prior to that time, any US citizen could drive to Canada or Mexico and, on the return leg of their trip, present themselves to US Immigration officials back at the border crossing with nothing more than their good looks and their American accent as proof of US citizenship. The men and women who manned the ports of entry interviewed everyone who presented themselves, maybe looked at their ID (which is not proof of citizenship), and then made a decision about whether or not to let the person in. WHTI sought to change all that by ensuring that people who traveled abroad, even on a simple day trip to Toronto, would do so with actual verified proof of citizenship in their pocket in the form of a US passport.
States all along our Northern and Southern borders reacted with fear and suspicion. To people on the border, the ability to go across the river to go shopping, visit friends, go to church or even have your kids participate in high school sporting events is a given and people naturally worried about the ramifications of getting and holding a passport. They complained to their congressmen and it was decided that the best solution was to allow border states to issue their own border crossing cards. Most states decided that the simplest way to do this was to use the pre-existing infrastructure of the State Department of Licensing and thus, the “Enhanced Driver’s License” was born.
Although we generally think of our government as one solid ill-tempered blob of bureaucracy, the truth is that for the most part the various agencies you share your information with do their very best to protect your privacy. Generally, unless there is some kind of special pre-existing agreement between bureaus or a court order, the various parts of government will not share your information with one another. This desire to protect your privacy is especially pronounced across the State and Federal lines. The IRS, for example can’t look at your birth certificate. The DMV can’t see your military records, etc. This also means that Immigration Officials don’t have access to State DMV records and, in order for the state issued border crossing cards to work on the Federally protected border, the various states in the program must share the information they collect with Immigration via a shared database.
Anyone who works with databases knows that the way you draw up information on a person is by entering their information. Naturally, when you have a line 1000 cars long, you don’t want your immigration officer trying to enter the data by hand and, to get around this, most enhanced drivers’ licenses have a “machine readable” code printed on the back of them that more or less matches what you would find on the bottom of your passport’s data page. As this part of the document is swept through a code reader, it automatically populates the data fields on the officer’s computer. The search is run and, if everything looks right, you are good to go after just a few questions.
Technology has continued to advance, however, and in the past few years the old machine readable system has been upgraded to include RFID technology. International treaties have been signed and RFID technology has been incorporated into passports worldwide. It also appears in border crossing cards like Nexus and the US Department of State’s own Passport Card. The payoff has been shorter wait times at the border and today people who hold RFID enhanced crossing cards can cross via special lanes that expedite the process by allowing the Immigration Officer manning the booth to pull up your information prior to your arrival at the window. The process is simple, you just pull your card out of its protective sleeve, wave it at the card reader at the head of the lane as you pass by and then present it to the official when you arrive at the window. With your data and photo already in front of him, the Immigration Officer gives you the once over, conducts the interview and sends you on your way.
Of course the fact that you are carrying around a radio transmitter that is capable of broadcasting your vital information all over the magnetosphere has some people worried. Anyone with the right equipment, they say, can steal your data as you walk down the street. The truth is, however, somewhat different than the popular perception. First, your border crossing card does not actually have personal information encoded on their chips. They are instead encoded with a number that refers back to the database I mentioned at the top of the article. Without access to the database, the number is meaningless.
But the cops can track you by that number when you drive by, right? Probably not. Most cards come with a foil impregnated sleeve that, assuming you faithfully keep your card in it, actually stops the transmission of even that small amount of data. Passport books, by the way, do actually have your data and photo encoded on their chips – the same information shown on the photo page of the book – but the cover of the book is foil lined in order to prevent transmission while the book is closed and the chip used has a much weaker signal. This weak signal, incidentally, is why the new passport books are not included among those documents allowed in the express lanes at the border.
So there it is, the actual truth about what is going on via the RFID chip in your pocket and what the chip in the new California driver’s license would have done as well. Of course, privacy advocates are concerned that the system could be abused, that certain parts of the government could track your movements through the card in your wallet the same way that they can track your movements via the cellular signal from the phone in your pocket or via your license plate through plate readers mounted on so many police cars these days or by computer enhanced photo recognition software linked through surveillance cameras located in public places or through all the metadata stuck to the photos you post on Facebook or by – well you get the point. Vulnerabilities are everywhere and each one is yet another chance for someone, maybe a criminal with a transmitter and a computer, the police, Big Brother, et al, to get into your pocket and into your personal business.
I see both sides of this argument. Every day brings new news about just how far the government is delving into our lives. They, or at least their computer programs, are listening to and recording our telephone conversations, they are sifting through our emails, the post office is photographing all the envelopes we mail, my car is recording my driving habits on a black box and the TSA is x-raying my luggage and laughing about the size of my dong every time I go through the scanner at the airport.
So what? I want that quicker trip across the border and, even though it is more intrusive than a lot of what we are subjected to, I also want that shorter line at the airport that I get because they are scanning my nutsack rather than groping it. It seems to me that the advantages of having an RFID chip in my enhanced license would outweigh the liability, especially since I can prevent any problems by using a sleeve or one of those metal lined wallets they are selling these days for just this purpose. You may say that I am trading my freedom for security, but I think otherwise. I am bearing a slight intrusion for the sake of convenience. That’s what the future is supposed to be isn’t it? A slicker, cleaner place where I am not bothered with all the minutiae of daily life. The only thing government surveillance is going to find out about me is what everyone on TTAC already knows, I’m a dull, fat, middle-aged man who owns a minivan. Ho-hum.
Thomas Kreutzer currently lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children but has spent most of his adult life overseas. He has lived in Japan for 9 years, Jamaica for 2 and spent almost 5 years as a US Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. A long time auto and motorcycle enthusiast he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He also enjoys writing and public speaking where, according to his wife, his favorite subject is himself.