Friday, September 19, 2008

Regulating technology that threatens our privacy + Bad RFID News from New York

As most of the readers of this blog know, there are two critically important RFID bills on Governor Schwarzenegger's desk awaiting his veto or signature.

Before I get to those bills and the broader discussion of RFID technology and the need for common sense regulation, there's some bad news to report from New York. This week, the state became the first to comply with a federal program to embed RFIDs in drivers’ licenses.

Thankfully, California has held off – for now. But with federal highway funds threatened, it may be only a matter of time before we’re all beaming our personal information, signatures and photographs every time we’re behind the wheel.

First, a little background. For decades, retailers have used tiny chips called Radio Frequency Identification devices. These RFIDs transmit information about their products to remote reading devises. Using an RFID to trigger an alarm if someone tries to shoplift clothing is pretty benign, but what if this technology was used to track the daily movements of law abiding citizens?

Seems far-fetched? Think again:

A California school district embedded RFIDs in student IDs without the parents' knowledge, claiming it would ensure that students were accounted for, but the district failed to consider the potential for hacking by a child abductor.

FasTrak transponders make it quicker to cross Bay Area bridges, but the Metropolitan Transportation Commission has released information in messy divorce cases that was used to document when wayward spouses were traveling to places they claimed they weren’t.

The US and other countries embed RFIDs in passports. In the Netherlands, it took a local TV station only two hours to figure out how to hack a prototype RFID in a Dutch passport. Hackers could access fingerprint, photograph, and other data on the RFID tag, perfect for creating a cloned passport.

Hacking is one problem, but the threat to our privacy doesn’t stop there. RFIDs can play a useful role in protecting entry and exit from secure locations such as police stations or prisons, but do we really want government snooping into our whereabouts when it’s none of their business?

The rapid evolution of ever intrusive technology makes it essential that we draw the line now.

Two pieces of legislation by Senator Joe Simitian are awaiting Governor Schwarzenegger’s signature or veto. They address privacy concerns and problems with “skimming” – the unauthorized surreptitious reading of RFIDs by persons with malicious intent.

Senate Bill 29 requires public schools to obtain a parent’s voluntary consent before a student is required to carry an RFID-enabled identification card. It requires a school to explain to parents the risks RFIDs pose to personal privacy.

This bill originated when a school district in Northern California gave students RFID enabled ID cards without first notifying parents. When parents found out, an uproar forced the district to end the program.

Parents, not schools, should decide whether children must carry a tracking devise. Mechanical devices might be useful for tracking cattle. When it comes to our children they are no substitute for teacher and school staff responsibility.

Senate Bill 31 makes it unlawful to skim information from an RFID without the consent of the ID holder. The prohibition does not apply to law enforcement applications such as in prisons, or in valid health emergency situations.

Organizations across the political spectrum ranging from the ACLU to the Liberty Coalition support these bills. High tech RFID manufacturers have derailed similar legislation by Senator Simitian in the past, and they continue to fight any effort to allow California residents to control the use of RFIDs in government-issued documents.

Governor Schwarzenegger should set an important precedent for privacy protection and against Big Brother snooping by signing SB 29 and SB 31.

We (CFC) are in the process of creating an action alert that can be filled out on our website and sent to the Governor urging him to sign these bills. We expect it to be up and ready for you to take action on this coming Monday. Stay tuned!

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