Average consumers may not realize how many RFID tags they carry around. The devices are embedded in personal items and even some clothing. Image: Melissa Thomas (photoillustration); Richard Schultz (RFID tags); Sam Jordash (woman); Burazin (key fob); ©2005 Transport For London (Oyster card); Identity Stronghold (passport sleeve); Dima Gavrysh AP Photo (Chase blink credit card); Rolf Vennenbernd DPA/Corbis (EAS/RFID); Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (SmarTrip card)
- Radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags are embedded in a growing number of personal items and identity documents.
- Because the tags were designed to be powerful tracking devices and they typically incorporate little security, people wearing or carrying them are vulnerable to surreptitious surveillance and profiling.
- Worldwide, legislators have done little to address those risks to citizens.
If you live in a state bordering Canada or Mexico, you may soon be given an opportunity to carry a very high tech item: a remotely readable driver’s license. Designed to identify U.S. citizens as they approach the nation’s borders, the cards are being promoted by the Department of Homeland Security as a way to save time and simplify border crossings. But if you care about your safety and privacy as much as convenience, you might want to think twice before signing up.
The new licenses come equipped with radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags that can be read right through a wallet, pocket or purse from as far away as 30 feet. Each tag incorporates a tiny microchip encoded with a unique identification number. As the bearer approaches a border station, radio energy broadcast by a reader device is picked up by an antenna connected to the chip, causing it to emit the ID number. By the time the license holder reaches the border agent, the number has already been fed into a Homeland Security database, and the traveler’s photograph and other details are displayed on the agent’s screen.