New passport card with RFID a privacy risk, warns tech centre

The Centers for Democracy and Technology (CDT) have warned that a proposed new RFID-enabled passport card intended for use by Americans frequently travelling to Canada, Mexico, Bermuda and the Caribbean poses serious security and privacy risks for users.

Among the concerns are the potential for the card to be used for location tracking by government and private entities and the relative ease with which it can be manipulated for identity theft purposes, the CDT said.

The Washington-based think tank’s warning was prompted by a final ruling in the Federal Register from the U.S. Department of State on Dec. 31 calling for the use of so-called “vicinity read” radio frequency identification technology on proposed new passport cards.

The department first announced plans to use RFID chips for new passport cards back in October 2006 and has been going through a process of collecting and responding to comments on its plans.

The identification cards would be needed by residents who don’t have passports for verifying their identity at land, air and sea border crossings and are to be issued as part of the Departments of State and Homeland Security’s Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, or WHTI.

The credit-card sized passport cards will use vicinity-read RFID technology that allow them to be read from at least 20 to 30 feet away by customs and border-protection officials. The goal is to substantially reduce wait times at the border by allowing officials to access and queue up a border crosser’s information even before they reach the official.

The approach is substantially different from the proximity-read technology being used in U.S. electronic passports, and it offers fewer protections, according to Ari Schwartz, deputy director at the CDT. Electronic passports contain all of the same identification data that appears on the first page of a passport, and includes a digital photograph and a digital signature. But the information on those chips is encrypted at all times and can only be accessed by physically swiping the card through a reader at the border crossing.

In contrast, said Schwartz, the proposed RFID-enabled passport cards can be read from a distance, and without user notice, consent or control over when the information is collected. Additionally, information from the card is transmitted in the clear — that is, without encryption. The RFID technology itself is also more susceptible to electronic eavesdropping and hacking, which makes the cards less tamper resistant compared to electronic passports, he said.

“So you have a situation where you are sending out identity information in the clear over a long distance,” using a less-than-secure technology, Schwartz said.

The State Department itself has said that the passport cards will not contain any identity information such as name, date of birth, social security number, or place of birth. Instead, all it will contain is a unique identifying number that will be used to access a card holder’s identifying information, which is stored separately on a secure Customs and Border Patrol system.

But the identification number itself is personal information, the CDT noted, because it is unique and corresponds to a computer file with personal identification information in a government database.

The use of passport cards will also require a separate infrastructure from that used for electronic passports and is unlikely to significantly speed up wait times at the border, Schwartz said.

David Williams, vice president for policy at Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) in Washington, said the government’s decision to go ahead with the RFID-enabled passport cards “was disappointing but not unexpected…. Once the government gets something in its head, it usually doesn’t change anything.”

Like Schwartz, Williams also expressed concern over the potential for such cards to be tampered with, with relative ease. “We are very concerned about any kind of RFID technology for any kind of identification [purposes],” from both a cost and security perspective, he said. The fact that the cards can be read from a distance, makes it a more attractive hacking target, he said: “RFIDs are great for tracking packages or for going through tolls. The problems begin when you attach it to a person’s identity.”

In its final ruling in the Federal Register, the State Department acknowledged that it had received over 4,000 comments from a range of individuals and organizations including Senators Hillary Clinton and Charles Schumer of New York, Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, and Representative Louise Slaughter of New York.

“The vast majority of the comments were generated from an e-petition launched by Citizens Against Government Waste opposing the choice of technology,” the ruling noted. “While State and DHS appreciate the comments received, the vast majority reflected an improper understanding of the business model that WHTI is designed to meet and how the technology selected would actually be implemented.”

In making its case for vicinity-read cards, the department noted that the unique identifying information stored on such cards had meaning only within the secure CBP system and was useless to anybody when taken out of context. It also added that protective sleeves would be provided to card holders to protect against the card number being inadvertently transmitted and said that use of the card was entirely optional.

That claim in turn raises further questions; the technology as described would meet the description of a Faraday cage, but it’s unclear whether an expenditure for such technology is explicitly covered in the budget.

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