Senators Question Use of RFID in E-Passports, National ID Cards

By Renee Boucher Ferguson Print this article Print

The Department of Homeland Security's Real ID Act is coming under fire over privacy concerns and potential financial burden on U.S. states.

The separate initiatives put forth by the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to utilize RFID in passports, identification cards and driver's licenses are coming under fire from various directions. At issue are concerns that the radio-frequency identification method of storing data on national electronic ID cards—the e-passport, PASScard and electronic driver's license—is neither secure nor private.

On Dec. 12, two senators—a Democrat and a Republican—said they would propose legislation to repeal the Real ID Act of 2005 if the Department of Homeland Security does not change the act to include more personal privacy provisions and less of a financial burden on states, according to news reports.

The Real ID Act mandates that every state overhaul its driver's license ID card system by 2008. It requires real-time authentication for documents such as birth certificates and Social Security cards—which would require a massive electronic, interoperable network—and the creation of a national database to store the electronic data gathered at the state level.

Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, and Sen. John Sununu, R-N.H., said they take issue with the technological implications of the act.

Sen. Akaka said that if the proposed national database were to be breached it would "provide one-stop access to virtually all information necessary to commit identity theft," and pointed to a study by the National Governors Association estimating that states would have to come up with a total of about $11 billion each to implement the necessary infrastructure to verify information electronically. Akaka will chair the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee—the group that has jurisdiction over the relationship between the federal and state governments—in 2007.

The Emerging Applications and Technology Subcommittee, part of the Data Privacy and Integrity Committee that advises DHS, toned down its harsh criticisms of RFID technology used to identify individuals—referring to the e-passport and PASScard ID card—in a report released Dec. 13.

While the updated report differed from the initial summer draft report that suggested RFID not be used at all, it still suggested that "RFID, standing alone, may not be best suited for purposes of identifying individuals."

On Dec. 4, the Smart Card Alliance, an industry group that works to foster the adoption of sensor-based technology used in all types of industry and consumer applications, such as credit cards and cell phones, issued a statement urging the federal government to reconsider its use of vicinity-read RFID technology in the proposed PASScard ID card that would be used by U.S. citizens crossing into nearby countries.

"Our members, who include technology providers of both contactless smart card and RFID products, understand human identification security and agree that the vicinity-read RFID technology proposed for the passport card is the wrong technology to implement a secure identification card," said Randy Vanderhoof, executive director of the Smart Card Alliance, in the report. "We urge the State Department and Department of Homeland Security to reconsider this decision in favor of more secure 'proximity' contactless smart card technology."

The problem with vicinity-read RFID, and with other forms of identification that utilize RFID, is that information obtained in the RFID chip can be read from several feet away, according to the Smart Card Alliance. The distance concept factors into the DHS' plans, which are to be able to read, for example, a carload of PASSport ID cards with a single wave of a reader.

Should the DHS should do more to ease RFID security fears? Click here to read more.

Long-range RFID tag technology, according to the Alliance and other industry watchers, should be used for tracking products, not people.

In its report the Alliance listed a number of concerns, including a lack of security safeguards; the potential for tracking to inspire citizen distrust; the duplication of required border infrastructure to accept this ID technology in addition to e-passports; a reliance on central databases and real-time access to networks to read the data stored on cards; and potential operational issues with multiple vicinity-read RFID tags in vehicles.

At the same time, according to the Alliance, there is currently no standards review or open discussion of the DHS' implementation approach.

Jarrod Agen, a spokesperson for the DHS, said the department is in the process of determining what alternative documents could be used to meet the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative's mandate that requires all U.S. citizens traveling by land or sea between the United States and Canada, Mexico, Bermuda, the Caribbean, and Central and South America, to have a passport or alternative ID.

"The PASScard is one of the suggestions," said Agen, in Washington.

In a speech at George Washington University on Dec. 14, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff defended the department's use of technology at border crossings and in national identification cards to protect citizens and weed out potential terrorists from entering the country.

Chertoff outlined a three-pronged approach that includes electronically collecting and analyzing personal information on people crossing U.S. borders, electronic ID cards and gathering biometric information from individuals using the cards—the RFID chips on the e-passports mandated in 2005 have enough memory capacity for biometric indicators that could include face or iris scans in addition to 10 finger prints.

"We are continuing to push forward on secure documents," Chertoff said. "[The initiatives] are all designed to make sure that our border inspectors, when they confront documents, are looking at documents that are secure, that are tamper-proof, and that are based on underlying reliable information."

To prevent skimming and eavesdropping of data from the e-passports—and likely the PASScard and electronic driver's license as well—the government has added BAC (Basic Access Control) and a shielding material to the passport.

BAC requires that the characters from the printed machine-readable zone of the passport be read first to unlock the chip for reading, according to the State Department's Web site.

"Thus, when an electronic passport is presented to an inspector, the inspector must scan the printed lines of data in order to be able to read the data on the chip," the site said. The shielding material on the outside of the passport is meant to protect against unauthorized readings.

"We plan to implement features for RFID that would prevent any stealing of private information," said Agen, referring to the e-passport. "The RFID chip will not store any personal information—it will simply store a code or number used by a reader to call up information in a database. That is done in an effort to prevent skimming. And there are other [measures] that we wouldn't discuss publicly yet."

Agen said the DHS will provide more specifics when the technology is fully developed and deployed. "We don't want to give out all the security features, so that people would try and find a way around them," he said.

Despite mounting concerns, few believe there will be any changes to the e-passport initiative already underway.

Jim Harper, a director of information policy studies for the Cato Institute and co-author of the DHS advisory report, said he believes that while the State Department will eventually fail at its e-passport initiative, it will be some time before any real understanding—or action—sets in.

"For some reason [the State Department] has been deeply committed to e-passport despite the fact that there is no benefit at all from the technology," said Harper, in Washington. "It will take a relatively long time for them to fail at it. A program has to fail consistently over several years, or maybe many years, for a system to fail [within the department]. Rarely is there a, 'oh, this doesn't work, let's move on.' It will just fail for several years, and finally be abandoned."

Harper said e-passports won't work for two reasons: speed, or the lack thereof, at border crossings, and security issues.

"There have been some pushback and some privacy concerns, but on a global scale e-passports are going to move forward," said Michael Liard, an ABI Research analyst who follows the RFID industry. "Use plans in Europe, Asia and the U.S. market are going to come on board. But you also have to appreciate that we've been talking about this for years."

The State Department began issuing e-passports in August.

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This article was originally published on 2006-12-15
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