Privacy advocates on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border are sounding loud alarms about RFID-enabled enhanced drivers’ licences (EDLs).
In January, British Columbia became the first province to introduce EDLs for cross-border travel in conjunction with Washington State.
Ontario and other provinces with high-volume border crossings are expected to follow suit in the near future. Under the U.S.’ Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI), passports will be required for all travellers entering the U.S. starting June 2009, but RFID-enabled EDLs are being introduced on a voluntary basis as an acceptable alternative to speed up border crossings.
“Developing a high-tech RFID system plays better politically in the U.S. but it’s security theatre to make borders appear more secure than they really are,” says Andrew Clement, professor of information studies at the University of Toronto.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and members of the RFID industry have also expressed serious concerns about the use of the EPC Gen 2 RFID protocol used in EDLs, as it doesn’t support encryption and can be read from a distance of up to 20 feet.
Canadian privacy advocates are questioning the overall thrust of this post- 9/11 initiative. “Is RFID technology really necessary for this purpose?” asks Clement. “That’s an important question – if the U.S. just wants citizen information collected at its borders, there are less problematic and more reliable ways to do it.”
There are no privacy safeguards in the RFID technology developed by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) for EDLs and other travel documents, he explains. “They’re designed to harvest entire busloads of travellers’ IDs as they drive by at 50 miles per hour.”
Demonstrations of the technology’s failings have been made, showing IDs for a crowd of people can be easily and covertly picked up by someone carrying a RFID reader in a suitcase, he adds.
Clement concedes there may be some efficiency gains in using RFID for short-range tag-reading, but less problematic technology such as bar codes or contact cards could be used instead to achieve similar results.
“It’s uncalled for to use RFID tags that can be read at such a long range – it’s over-reach for the task they’re claiming it’s for.”
There appear to be wider issues at play, says Clement. “This needs to be seen in the context of a general push for security across a range of realms. As the Privacy Commissioner of Canada has noted, this seems to be a way of enrolling Canadians into the ID schemes being developed by the DHS.”
Clement explains that the Real ID Act enacted in 2005 calls for the harmonization of drivers’ licences across states in the U.S., as there’s widespread recognition licences aren’t secure. Americans can get licences in multiple states, and there’s no systematic way of verifying people’s identities or checking inconsistencies across state lines.
But in the U.S., identity and citizenship are folded into drivers’ licences. “There was a big thrust after 9/11 to create a national ID but there was huge opposition,” he says.
“The EDL scheme is seen as a way to sneak it through the back door by turning state licences, through U.S.-wide harmonization with biometrics, into de facto identity cards. And the Privacy Commissioner has pointed out that Canada’s EDLs will be made compatible from a system point of view with Real ID standards, so Canadians will in fact be enrolled in the U.S. apparatus via licences. There are several steps to get there but this seems to be the direction it’s heading towards.”
The irony is that the EDL model has no more underlying rigour than other forms of ID such as Canada’s citizen card, and ultimately doesn’t serve the anti-terrorism agenda.
“If you really want to establish people’s identities, then it depends on the integrity of the base documents like the birth certificates you present to get an EDL. But in the U.S., there are thousands of birth certificate-issuing organizations, and it’s similar in Canada. If that’s not standardized, then it’s difficult to produce a highly-secure card.”
Nor are RFID-enabled documents necessarily harder to forge than paper citizen cards, he says. “If you create a scheme that allows people to go quickly through borders, then there’s tremendous incentive to develop ways to spoof the signals. There are already ways to do this via a replay attack: by intercepting the RFID signals in a vicinity, you can tell how the cards respond. Then you can just replay the signals you get from a card to impersonate someone else. “
Even if more secure, next-generation RFID technology were used instead, privacy advocates would not be satisfied, he says. “There is too much room for abuse even in more secure RFID,” agrees Stuart Trew, researcher at the Council of Canadians, which has 70,000 members and is Canada’s largest citizens’ advocacy group.
EDLs are a step towards the slippery slope of creating a surveillance state, says Trew. “The concern is that RFID scanners will start popping up in trains and bus stations everywhere, not just border checkpoints.”
Documents obtained by American privacy advocates under freedom of information requests show that discussions held under the auspices of the Security and Prosperity Partnership, a 2005 agreement between the U.S., Canada and Mexico, have proposed widening surveillance of travellers.
“They’re considering real-time monitoring of travel throughout North America with RFID chips that can be perpetually read.”
Despite the controversy, British Columbia and other Canadian provinces are proceeding with the EDL initiative. Provinces with significant traffic of people and goods across the U.S. border face a genuine dilemma, says Clement. Many local economies depend on cross-border flows, but citizenship matters are decided by the federal government, which supports harmonization with the U.S. model.
“By offering EDLs, provinces are trying to ease questions about cross-border flows, particularly for nearby communities that are accustomed to travelling across freely. But the fact that Canada’s citizen card is not acceptable suggests there’s a wider agenda.”
Clement speculates the EDL initiative has more to do with illegal Mexican immigrants than anti-terrorism. Although proponents say the prime motivation is anti-terrorism, the EDL initiative doesn’t address many of the key issues in border security.
“This high-tech solution is a bit of a mirage. In my opinion, the main concern is the Mexican border, which is hot political issue. Presidential candidates are all saying they’ll secure the borders. They want something that looks more robust, and just asking for a citizen card doesn’t seem more secure.”
However, there are signs that the Bush administration’s anti-terrorism programmes and policies are in disarray, he says. “My advice to Canada is to develop its own standards for identification, wait out the election and hope the U.S. administration under a new president comes to its senses.”
Rosie Lombardi is a Toronto-based freelance journalist. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org