The Number of the Beast

It’s been coming down the pike for awhile, so slyly that many people aren’t aware of it in any way, or if they are, it is probably dismissed as a false concern.

The problem is micro-chips embedded in everything from your passports to your phone, all capable of providing information about you to whoever has the capability to read them, and it’s becoming increasingly easy to do so. The Federal government has been embedding RFID chips, or radio frequency identification chips into the new passports, presumeably to facilitate the flow of information, but apparently this chip is very open to abuse.

Climbing into his Volvo, outfitted with a Matrics antenna and a Motorola reader he’d bought on eBay for $190, Chris Paget cruised the streets of San Francisco with one objective: To read the identity cards of strangers, wirelessly, without ever leaving his car.

It took him 20 minutes to strike hacker’s gold.

Zipping past Fisherman’s Wharf, his scanner detected, then downloaded to his laptop, the unique serial numbers of two pedestrians’ electronic U.S. passport cards embedded with radio frequency identification, or RFID, tags.

Within an hour, he’d “skimmed” the identifiers of four more of the new, microchipped PASS cards from a distance of 20 feet.

Embedding identity documents — passports, drivers licenses, and the like — with RFID chips is a no-brainer to government officials.

Increasingly, they are promoting it as 21st century technology that will help speed border crossings, safeguard credentials against counterfeiters, and keep terrorists from sneaking into the country.

Once again, we see that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. I approve of an idea that keeps terrorists at bay- who wouldn’t? But I do think that whoever thought this up didn’t think this through to it’s complete end game, or they would have safeguarded these chips from illicit hacking before sticking them into passports, driver’s licenses, ID cards, cell phones, cars, and every other thing they think they need to keep track of us “just in case” we get unruly, we’re late for dinner, or they need our advice on international policy and/ or fiscal restraint.

Putting a traceable RFID in every pocket has the potential to make everybody a blip on someone’s radar screen, critics say, and to redefine Orwellian government snooping for the digital age.

“Little Brother,” some are already calling it — even though elements of the feared global surveillance web exist only on drawing boards, neither available nor approved for use.

But with advances in tracking technologies coming at an ever-faster rate, critics say, it won’t be long before governments could be able to find anyone in real time, 24-7, from a cafe in Paris to the shores of California.

The key to getting such a system to work, opponents say, is making sure everyone carries an RFID tag linked to a biometric data file.

This sounds like so much fun, being at the beck and call of anyone who seriously  wants to find out who you are, and your credit score, and any other records they might want to access- including, possibly, your medical records and/ or DNA. This might be a good thing, in that a person would not have to carry around a slew of documents- instead, your chip would be scanned- but to do this right, the government, or whoever is going to be in charge of this needs to get it right, and can you really trust the government to get anything right?

The probability and opportunity of and for abuse is too easy by far at the moment. And there are other considerations.

The purpose of using RFID is not to identify people, says Mary Ellen Callahan, chief privacy officer at Homeland Security, but rather “to verify that the identification document holds valid information about you.”

Likewise, U.S. border agents are “pinging” databases only to confirm that licenses aren’t counterfeited. “They’re not pulling up your speeding tickets,” she says, or looking at personal information beyond what is on a passport.

The change is largely about speed and convenience, she says.

An RFID document that doubles as a U.S. travel credential, Callahan says, “only makes it easier to pull the right record fast enough, to make sure that the border flows, and is operational.”

Homeland Security has been promoting broad use of RFID even though its own advisory committee warned that radio-tagged IDs have the potential to allow “widespread surveillance of individuals” without their knowledge.

In its 2006 draft report, the committee recommended that “RFID be disfavored for identifying and tracking human beings.”

For now, chipped PASS cards and enhanced driver’s licenses are optional and not yet widely deployed. Roughly 192,000 EDLs have been issued in Washington, Vermont, Michigan and New York.

But as more Americans carry them “you can bet that long-range tracking of people on a large scale will rise exponentially,” says Paget, a self-described “ethical hacker” who works as an Internet security consultant.

Mark Roberti, editor of RFID Journal, an industry newsletter, recently acknowledged that as the use of RFID in official documents grows, the potential for abuse increases.

“A government could do this, for instance, to track opponents,” he wrote in an opinion piece discussing Paget’s experiment. “To date, this type of abuse has not occurred, but it could if governments fail to take privacy issues seriously.”

Now, I am not one for “conspiracies”- personally, I feel that people are too stupid and venal to hold a conspiracy together for long; however, I am not necessarily in favor of allowing the ease by which venal and corrupt people can take advantage of us either. We need to be very, very careful in what we do and how we do this- we cannot rely on others’ altruism.

The chains we put on ourselves we cannot blame on others.


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2 Responses to “The Number of the Beast”

  1. Darrel says:

    I like RFID and think it will greatly improve productivity. There are some security concerns but these shouldn’t be too big of a deal.

    As to tracking us, for several years now all cell phones have GPS tracking in them. It can’t be turned off as long as the phone has power. So they already know where you and your phone are, at all times, within about 20 feet.

    I haven’t found it to be a problem.


    • Blake says:

      My concerns have to do with abuse of the chips, and how your life can potentially be taken from you- not a good thing, if you have ever had a credit card or identity stolen from you, it can take years to straighten it out- this might be worse.