The use of new electronic devices to track products, pets, and people using radio frequencies is growing at what privacy advocates say is an alarming rate, given concerns that the technology is being implemented without proper safeguards, in both the public and the private sectors.
Radio frequency identification (RFID) technology is used around the world in everyday consumer products from produce to beer kegs to DVDs. Increasingly it is being tested as a method to track people and in schools, prisons and transit systems.
Most disturbing to privacy advocates and civil libertarians are US government proposals to use RFID tags in passports and drivers’ licenses, and in a new pilot program launched this summer that has placed RFID tags in immigrants’ visas.
RFID devices, from pinhead sized minichips to flat tags inserted into a piece of paper, contain miniscule antennas that pass the information it contains after entering the range of a scanning device. Most RFID technology in use now is "passive," which means it does not contain an internal power supply and can only transmit information from a distance of up to about 30 feet. "Active" tags have an internal power source, can be read from further distances, and can store information sent from a transceiver.
In August of this year, the Department of Homeland Security began testing RFID tags at five border crossings under the United States Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology program, or "US VISIT."
The program applies to people without green cards who enter the US with a visa, whether for work, school, research or tourism, or those from 27 mostly European countries who are traveling under the "Visa Waiver Program," which allows travelers to stay for up to 90 days without a visa. Over the next year, people in these categories will be issued new "I-94" visa cards embedded with an RFID tag at five border crossings including Nogales East and Nogales West in Arizona, Alexandria Bay in New York, and the Pacific Highway and Peace Arch in Washington. Homeland Security Department requires that the I-94 cards be carried at all times.
The tag transmits a serial number which US government officials can use to access biographic and biometric information stored in a government database, including the individual’s passport number, US destination address, arrival and departure information, a digital photograph, and digital finger scans.
During the testing phase, travelers with I-94s hold up their RFID tag as they drive through the border crossing. A reader device, about the size of a computer screen, records entry and exit of individuals crossing the border on foot or by car, transmitting information from up to 55 tags per vehicle.
At a demonstration of the RFID tags for the press at the Alexandria Bay crossing, US Customs and Border Protection Executive Director PT Wright Jr. said that during the testing phase, information collected through the RFID tags will not be used in determining a person’s admissibility. "We don’t want anyone concerned that system was not working that day," Wright told reporters. "There will be no use of this information to adversely affect someone’s status, so if you’re issued one of these, you’re free to report exit as you normally do."
Homeland Security officials say the RFID tags will enhance security, facilitate legitimate travel and trade, and ensure the integrity of the US immigration system. The Department, which is accepting public comments on the RFID US-VISIT program through October 3, estimates the cost of the pilot program to be about $100 million.
"The actual information that is transmitted by that [RFID] chip is only a number," explained Wright. "If you’re able to have the technology to capture that number, it wouldn’t do you any good; it would only be a number. Only when it goes through our secure lines is there a link to that person’s identity."
But some critics say any technology that tracks a person remotely and invisibly could compromise their privacy. The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), in comments submitted to DHS in July 2005, urged the Department to abandon the use of RFID tags completely.
"Any time a visitor is carrying his I-94 RFID-enabled form, his unique identification number, which is linked to his individual biographic information, could be accessed by unauthorized individuals," the group wrote. "So long as the RFID tag or chip can be read by unauthorized individuals, the person carrying that tag can be distinguished from any other person carrying a different tag. Foreign visitors could be identified as such merely because they carry an RFID-enabled I-94 form."
EPIC points out that in the Department’s own "Privacy Impact Assessment," it admits there is a risk that the RFID tag "could be used to conduct surreptitious locational surveillance of an individual; i.e., to use the presence of the tag to follow an individual as he or she moves about in the US."
Privacy advocates also say the use of "contactless" RFID in identification is unnecessary. It would be easier and more secure for the government to attach conventional barcodes to visas and scan them up close, the way library book or credit cards are used to access personal information.
Lee Tien, senior staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told The NewStandard that RFID is popular because it is convenient, "but also because it has the spill-over tracking benefit." Tien believes that once enough businesses install RFID readers, or when the reader technology becomes available to the general public, a person could theoretically be tracked numerous times each day.
"Two, three years ago when we were talking about this, people thought that it was crazy," said Tien. "What we’re seeing today is a strong trend toward that pervasiveness where different entities, for their own reasons -- some will be commercial, some will be government, some will be library, some will be transit systems, you name it -- they will all be looking at deploying RFID censors and RFID tags."
Tien predicts these technologies will likely become more interoperable and standardized. "And then we’ll have a situation where there will be a lot of cards, a lot of chips, a lot of readers all around us, and then there will be a really serious problem," he said.
Immigration attorney Angelo Paparelli, a partner with the California- and New York-based law firm Paparelli and Partners, is concerned about secret courts or rogue officers using RFID to identify individuals. Paparelli theorizes that people carrying RFID tags, who might be attending a public demonstration or seeing a controversial speaker, could be remotely identified as foreign nationals, asked to provide their I-94 card, and questioned about their activities in the US.
"That’s not something we ordinarily do these days, even in the post 9/11 era," said Paparelli. "We don’t just go into the street and ask someone to see their papers because normally you have no way of knowing, absent some sort of racial or ethnic profiling, which isn’t appropriate under the law."
In addition to compromising the rights of foreign nationals in the US, Paparelli is also concerned that other countries will reciprocate by passing laws to use RFID tags on American travelers abroad.
"This is the kind of stealth pilot program that very few people have heard about," said Paparelli, "And it troubles me that there is not debate on what is right and what is wrong under the circumstances."
As federal and state officials also continue to develop possible use of RFID in passports and driver’s licenses, the technology is becoming more pervasive in other parts of society, a trend Barry Steinhardt, director of the American Civil Liberties Union Technology and Liberty Program, sees as a drift toward becoming a surveillance society.
"The explosion of computers, cameras, sensors, wireless communication, GPS, biometrics and other technologies in the last 10 years is feeding what can be described as a surveillance monster that is growing silently in our midst," Steinhardt wrote in July 2004 comments to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.
Consumer and privacy groups express fears that RFID tags could eventually be used in clothing tags, shoes and suitcases without a person’s knowledge, detected by readers hidden in floor tiles and carpets. With this use of RFID tags, detailed information about where a person shops or travels could be gathered by marketers, sold to retailers, and stockpiled in databases. Meanwhile, RFID is moving beyond approved uses that inventory cattle and electronics, to more programs that monitor human behavior and activity.
A school district near Sacramento tested RFID technology earlier this year, as reported by TNS. The pilot program enabled teachers to track attendance using a handheld scanner capable of reading personal information embedded in tags worn around the students’ necks. The district canceled the controversial program after pressure from parents and civil rights organizations.
The Pitchess Detention Center in Los Angeles County plans to launch a pilot program this fall outfitting 1,800 prisoners with RFID bracelets to monitor violent behavior. If the program is judged successful, Sheriff’s department officials want to expand it to the entire jail system, which incarcerates about 18,000 people.
And former secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson recently volunteered to have a "VeriChip" RFID tag inserted into his body, to promote the product for use in storing medical records. Thompson is also a board member of Applied Digital, the company making VeriChips.
As the technological inhibitions against surveillance disappear and RFID expands, says Steinhardt of the ACLU, the laws and institutions that protect against abuse need to be strengthened. "Unfortunately, in all too many cases, even as this surveillance monster grows in power, we are weakening the legal chains that keep it from trampling our privacy."
By Catherine Komp – The NewStandard