By Patricia H. Kushlis
I guess it’s that time again for another post on the continuing saga of US passports, e-passports and the proliferation of the ubiquitously insecure RFID chips embedded in both American documents required for US citizens to travel abroad and then return home.
The problem is that despite the sound and the flurry last spring when Washington Times reporter Bill Gwertz reported on the personal security breaches that the embedding of RFID chips into American travel documents creates, the US government ignored the warnings. Instead, it's gone full-speed ahead with the controversial technology acquired from a controversial company based in the Netherlands with production facilities in Thailand.
Now the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs in bed with Homeland Security’s Border and Customs Control folks are seeing to it that these wonderful little mechanisms designed to control supermarket inventories are also in the new e-passports for frequent border crossers. From what I discovered last year and reported here on WhirledView, one has to ask why the rush. Why was the latest decision taken in January – just days before the new administration came to power? That alone, it seems to me, needs an answer. There’s a lot here that doesn’t meet the eye. Or at least mine.
According to an AP story on February 27 carried in Physorg.com, the new RFID technology at the San Ysidro Port of Entry in San Diego, this country’s busiest crossing, “can read chip-enabled travel documents up to 30 feet from an inspection booth.” Paul Miller on Engadget.com stated a little earlier that the private information contained on those tiny chips can only be read from a distance of 20 feet.
Ah, well. So that makes them secure?
Whichever distance of insecurity, 30 feet or 20 feet - both make me squeamish. And what about keeping one’s e-passport in an aluminum storage sleeve until use the mode the US government decided to employ as the fix? I suppose better something than nothing – but, hello there – how about when the e-passport is in use? Or what if someone forgets the sleeve – or forgets to put the e-passport in the sleeve? Hmm? Then who’s negligible?
San Ysidro is, according to AP, the “13th land crossing to get the technology . . . and US Customs and Border Protection plans to have it in place at the 39 busiest crossings with Mexico and Canada by June., reports AP.
Yes, speed in this Internet age has its advantages: the e-passport with its RFID chip reportedly reduces wait times by 6-8 seconds per car at the US border.
But slow down. All that long distance scanning is not as it seems. Besides I have to wonder: does it really matter since the Mexicans don’t use it on their side? So, apparently, the wait times in Mexico can be up to three hours on a busy day. If Mexican border officials – slowed by the lack of questionable technology at their fingertips - only allow x number of cars to cross to the US in a given minute, wouldn’t that likely determine the time for US border crossings to be completed anyway?
Here’s the problem for you and me.
The RFID technology was not, I’m assured by John Oram West Coast Reporter for ITEXAMINER.com who follows these matters closely, designed to be secure. If you think it is, take a look at this video which was filmed in San Francisco earlier this year. Then, think again.
Furthermore, the companies – or company - who sell the RFID chips for use in American passports and e-passports make no claims that the data is, in fact, secure. I also understand that although it is possible to encrypt the personal data contained on each chip, the level of that encryption is relatively easy to hack because a higher level of encryption costs far more than the value of what our less-than-illustrious officials decided to spend to ensure that in fact, our private information remains, well, private.
Meanwhile at the Tex-Mex border, immigration attorney Kathleen Walker told AP that she hadn’t seen significant changes since the new technology had been installed at the El Paso, Texas – Juarez, Mexico border crossing. Instead, she suggested that the most effective way to obtain “shorter lines is (by) adding more inspectors and vehicle lines.”
Given the drug-related crime flourishing across our southern border these days, I for one, would like to see actual inspectors inspecting actual cars and people in those cars as well. What a novel idea.
Putting people first
Now that we have a new administration in Washington with an attitude that seems to put people, not Dick Cheney’s, security first, it seems to me that a reexamination of the rush to RFID our travel documents without really caring should be put on the review agenda at State and also Homeland Security.
Hillary Clinton, Rand Beers, and others involved in cleaning up the mess left by W . . . over to you.
2008 WhirledView posts on RFID passports security problems: