Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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October 5, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

UBIQUITOUS SURVEILLANCE....Security expert Bruce Schneier has a new blog about.... security issues. Check it out.

Today, he writes about the U.S. government's effort to advocate a new standard for passports that includes an embedded chip. That's not a bad idea, except that the chip in question is an RFID, a chip that broadcasts its information to a nearby receiver. Why an RFID?

Security is always a trade-off. If the benefits of RFID outweighed the risks, then maybe it would be worth it. Certainly, there isn't a significant benefit when people present their passport to a customs official. If that customs official is going to take the passport and bring it near a reader, why can't he go those extra few centimeters that a contact chip one the reader must actually touch would require?

....Unfortunately, there is only one possible reason: The administration wants surreptitious access themselves. It wants to be able to identify people in crowds. It wants to surreptitiously pick out the Americans, and pick out the foreigners. It wants to do the very thing that it insists, despite demonstrations to the contrary, can't be done.

Advocates of RFID passports insist that privacy concerns are groundless. RFIDs come in various shapes and sizes, and the ones designed for passports use encryption to secure the data and can only be read from a few inches away.

As Bruce points out, though, that's pretty meaningless. In reality, RFIDs can be read from farther away than their specs suggest, and any encryption system designed for widespread public use is likely to be cracked before the ink is dry on the ISO document.

And, as he asks, what's the point? Passports are always read by machines, so what possible reason can there be for using RFID technology? The answers or lack thereof are not reassuring.

Unfortunately, this is one more sign of the rapidly approaching era of ubiquitous surveillance. Like the proverbial boiling frog, it's happening slowly enough that we hardly notice it, but within a couple of decades current notions of privacy will be all but dead unless we start doing something about it now. More here.

Kevin Drum 12:19 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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