12:15 PM

Alliance Criticizes RFID Passport Card Plans

Contactless technology seen as safer, more private than RFID

RFID is for packages, not people.

That was the emphatic response to the State Department's proposal to use radio frequency identification chips for ID cards to shorten wait times and improve security at borders with Mexico and Canada, where passports aren't required. RFID, made "to track packages and products, is not the appropriate technology" for ID systems for people, says a statement from the Smart Card Alliance, whose members provide RFID and smart card products. The group backs contactless smart cards, which can be scanned only at short distances and have better security.

RFID to the rescue?

RFID to the rescue?

Photo by Nancee E. Lewis/Zuma Press
But contactless smart cards won't help speed traffic at the border, which is one of the main objectives in this effort, says Frank Moss, deputy assistant secretary of state in charge of passport services. The State Department proposed RFID cards, hoping that ID scans from longer distances, such as while cars are pulling up to a border official, would cut wait times.

The alliance is pushing smart cards because they contain microprocessors, allowing for improved encryption, authentication, and other security measures compared with RFID chips. Someone with a reader could follow a person at a border, obtain the ID number on the RFID tag, and duplicate the card, the alliance contends. RFID's weaker cryptographic protections and longer-range reading also raise concerns that the cards could be used to track people.

Moss says RFID-based cards would come with a sleeve that prevents information from being surreptitiously stolen or used for tracking.

RFID stirs controversy everywhere it pops up, so this couldn't be a surprise to government officials. The State Department isn't backing down yet, but Moss says officials are open to changing plans based on the public's feedback.

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