geert on Tue, 20 Jul 2004 19:50:55 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Barry Steinhardt's RFID statement

(posted to nettime with the agreement of the author /geert)

From: Barry Steinhardt <>



Before the Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection Subcommittee of the
House of Representatives, Committee on Energy and Commerce

JULY 14, 2004

My name is Barry Steinhardt and I am the director of the Technology and
Liberty Program at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The ACLU is
a nationwide, non-partisan organization with nearly 400,000 members
dedicated to protecting the individual liberties and freedoms guaranteed
in the Constitution and laws of the United States. I appreciate the
opportunity to testify about Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags on
behalf of the ACLU before the Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection
Subcommittee of the House of Representatives Committee on Energy and
Commerce. Today, I will explore with you the risks to privacy of
governmental uses of RFID tags in identification documents, and the risks
to consumer privacy of use of RFID tags by the private sector. I will
close by suggesting that Congress play an active role in deciding whether
to authorize governmental use of RFID tags in U.S. passports.

RFID tags are tiny computer chips connected to miniature antennae that can
be placed on or in physical objects. The chips contain enough memory to
hold unique identification codes for all manufactured items produced
worldwide. When an RFID reader emits a radio signal, nearby tags respond
by transmitting their stored data to the reader. With passive RFID tags,
which do not contain batteries, read-range can vary from less than an inch
to 20-30 feet, while active (self-powered) tags can have a much longer
read range.

Drift toward a surveillance society

The privacy issues raised by RFID tags are vitally important because they
are representative of a larger trend in the United States: the seemingly
inexorable drift toward a surveillance society. As Congress considers the
privacy issues posed by RFID chips, I urge you to view them in the larger
context – a world that is increasingly becoming a sea of data and
databases, where the government and private corporations alike are
gathering more and more details about our everyday existence.

The explosion of computers, cameras, sensors, wireless communication, GPS,
biometrics, and other technologies in just the last 10 years is feeding
what can be described as a surveillance monster that is growing silently
in our midst. Scarcely a month goes by in which we don’t read about some
new high-tech method for invading privacy, from face recognition to
implantable microchips, data-mining to DNA chips, and now RFID identity
tags. The fact is, there are no longer any technical barriers to the
creation of the surveillance society.

While the technological bars are falling away, we should be strengthening
the laws and institutions that protect against abuse. Unfortunately, in
all too many cases, even as this surveillance monster grows in power, we
are weakening the legal chains that keep it from trampling our privacy. We
should be responding to intrusive new technologies by building stronger
restraints to protect our privacy; instead, all too often we are doing the
opposite. (The ACLU has written a report on this subject, entitled Bigger
Monster, Weaker Chains: The Growth of an American Surveillance Society,
which is available on our Web site at

We hope that this will not happen with RFID chips, which promise great new
efficiencies and conveniences, but also hold the potential to enable the
most Orwellian kinds of surveillance. RFID tags enable remote, even
surreptitious identification; their use generally requires the creation of
databases containing identity information; and RFID use is easily
integrated into database systems and other technologies.

Congress must act to lay to rest the privacy fears surrounding this
technology so that it will be smooth sailing for us all to enjoy its

There are two primary areas where RFIDs raise privacy issues: their use in
retail and elsewhere in the commercial sector, and their direct adoption
by government.

The most frightening use of RFID chips: government tracking Government use
of RFID is burgeoning. The Pentagon plans to use RFID to track physical
objects – a use that raises relatively modest privacy concerns. Other
proposed uses raise more serious concerns. The San Francisco Library, for
example, is proposing to put RFID chips in its books, which raises the
specter of third parties being able to track our reading habits without
our knowledge.

Most troubling of all are proposals to incorporate RFID tags into
government identity documents.

RFIDs would allow for convenient, at-a-distance verification of ID.
RFID-tagged IDs could be secretly read right through a wallet, pocket,
backpack, or purse by anyone with the appropriate reader device, including
marketers, identity thieves, pickpockets, oppressive governments, and
others. Retailers might add RFID readers to find out exactly who is
browsing their aisles, gawking at their window displays from the sidewalk
– or passing by without looking. Pocket ID readers could be used by
government agents to sweep up the identities of everyone at a political
meeting, protest march, or Islamic prayer service. A network of automated
RFID listening posts on the sidewalks and roads could even reveal the
location of all people in the U.S. at all times.

This may sound far-fetched, and I hope that it stays that way. But if we
at the ACLU have learned anything over the past decade, it is that
seemingly distant privacy invasions that sound right out of science
fiction often become real far faster than anyone has anticipated. I give
you this scenario as something that I think most Americans would agree is
something that should be avoided, and yet is now entirely possible as far
as the technology that is available to us. That means that our future is
now going to be decided by policy.

RFID-powered documents: all-too real We need not end up in the frightening
situation that I have just described to suffer privacy invasions from RFID
technology. In fact, worries about RFID-enabled identity documents are far
from an abstract concern. Already, deliberations are underway to encourage
governments to include RFID chips in the passport carried by citizens of
every nation including the United States.

Largely unnoticed by the press and many public policy makers, an obscure
UN-affiliated group called the International Civil Aviation Organization
(ICAO) has been developing global standards for passports and other travel
documents. This effort grows out of the Enhanced Border Security and Visa
Entry Reform Act (EBSA), which mandated that the passport of every visa
waiver country “issue to its nationals machine-readable passports that are
tamper-resistant and incorporate biometric and document authentication
identifiers;” any nation that fails to comply with this requirement will
lose its status as a “visa-waiver” country. The Act mandates that the
standards for these passports be created by ICAO.

Under ICAO’s current proposal, passports around the world would not only
incorporate biometrics like fingerprints or face recognition, but – as we
only recently learned – also remotely readable “contact-less integrated
circuits,” or RFID tags. Nothing in EBSA requires the inclusion of an RFID
chip on passports.

While we’ll be making this testimony available to other committees that
would have a strong interest in whether RFID tags go on passports, we
believe that a wholistic approach to the use of RFID tags by Congress may
be called for.

ICAO has been developing these passport standards over a period of months
in meetings held around the world. Because of the serious implications of
creating an RFID-enabled identity document, the ACLU and the London-based
group Privacy International tried to arrange attendance of a
representative at a March 2004 meeting held in Cairo. This effort was
unsuccessful. An open letter to the ICAO on privacyconcerns over the
biometric standards likewise met with no response. The ACLU again wrote to
ICAO asking to attend a May 2004 meeting in Montreal, and once again
received no response.

In short, despite the importance of technical and interoperability
standards – which can mean the difference between a use of biometrics that
poses enormous problems for privacy, or one that poses little – ICAO has
ignored attempts by privacy and civil liberties groups to join in their
process. To a degree that would not be possible with a domestic government
decision-making body, it has rebuffed NGO attempts to provide input on the
privacy implications of the particular standards being considered, or even
simply to observe the meetings.

Like the results of most processes with limited input, the standards
developed by the ICAO are deeply flawed. The RFID chips under
consideration can be read from up to a meter away and have enough memory
to hold full biometric information such as fingerprints or photographs.
The potential uses and abuses of such a chip could be revolutionary. A
retail store or restaurant, for example, might gain the ability to capture
the identities of those who walk through a portal; a government official
could instantly sweep the room to discover who is attending a political
meeting. Imagine the uses to which a dictator like Fidel Castro could put
such technology. Every person in Cuba – including Cuban-Americans carrying
U.S. passports while visiting family members in Cuba – could be put under
surveillance and no one would be safe.”

If the United States mandates the creation of an international standard
for passports, it will face enormous pressure to conform its own passports
to that standard. For instance, when the US instituted the US Visit
Program one nation, Brazil, reacted swiftly by putting similar measures
into effect for just their American visitors. In fact, far from being
concerned that such systems would lead to the retaliatory creation of
systems for tracking Americans elsewhere in the world, Bush Administration
officials have embraced such reciprocation. “We welcome other countries
moving to this kind of system,” Department of Homeland Security
undersecretary Asa Hutchinson declared. “We fully expect that other
countries will adopt similar procedures.”

By instituting RFID chips in passports, the US government could skip right
over the politically untenable proposals for a National ID card, and set a
course toward the creation of a global identity document – or, at least,
toward a set of global standards for identity that can be incorporated
into a wide variety of national identity documents. There are two possible
paths by which RFID-powered passports could become tools for tracking the
everyday lives of Americans:

- These passports come to be seen as the gold standard of identity
verification around the world. More and more, they are demanded as proof
of identity not only abroad but within the United States as well,
displacing driver’s licenses as the primary form of identification in
everyday life. - They become the template for standardized versions of the
driver’s license, turning them into a de facto National ID card.

Features such as the inclusion of a remotely readable RFID chip would
greatly enhance the private sector’s tendency to piggyback on the
perceived “trust value” of these documents. Although theoretically
optional, like driver’s licenses and credit cards before them, they may
quickly become what are for all practical purposes requirements for
navigating through the modern world. The result would be a situation where
the government gains a tremendous new power to track and control the
movement of citizens.

Or innocent citizens, at any rate. We must always keep in mind that as the
perceived “trust value” of such documents rises, and as their adoption
becomes more widespread, the payoff for counterfeiting them also rises –
perhaps even more steeply – with the result that counterfeit or
fraudulently acquired real documents will continue to remain available to
determined and well-financed wrongdoers.

While we understand the desire of the ICAO to increase confidence in
travel documents, reduce fraud, combat terrorism, and protect aviation
security, the inclusion of RFID tags will have disproportionate and
unnecessary effects on privacy and civil liberties. Developed without
outside input, the ICAO passport has morphed from a simple identity
document to become a de facto monitoring device. Worse, this monitoring
device threatens to be foisted on the American public with little or no
debate. Because of the power and potential of RFID chips, the actions of
the ICAO threaten the rights of Americans and people around the world.

Consumer issues The second major area where privacy concerns are raised by
RFID tags in addition to government uses is the commercial side. Major
retailers are engaged in a major push to advance adoption of RFID
technology, and many envision RFIDs eventually replacing UPC bar codes on

Such a pervasive adoption of RFID technology raises profound privacy
questions. The most detailed and often intimate picture of Americans’
lives can be constructed through their consumer purchases. The issues were
well explained in a position statement issued by a coalition of 30
consumer and privacy organizations. They include:

- Hidden placement of tags. RFID tags can be embedded into/onto objects
and documents without the knowledge of the individual who obtains those
items. As radio waves travel easily and silently through fabric, plastic,
and other materials, it is possible to read RFID tags sewn into clothing
or affixed to objects contained in purses, shopping bags, suitcases, and

- Unique identifiers for all objects worldwide. The Electronic Product
Code potentially enables every object on earth to have its own unique ID.
The use of unique ID numbers could lead to the creation of a global item
registration system in which every physical object is identified and
linked to its purchaser or owner at the point of sale or transfer.

- Massive data aggregation. RFID deployment requires the creation of
massive databases containing unique tag data. These records could be
linked with personal identifying data, especially as computer memory and
processing capacities expand.

- Hidden readers. Tags can be read from a distance, not restricted to line
of sight, by readers that can be incorporated invisibly into nearly any
environment where human beings or items congregate. RFID readers have
already been experimentally embedded into floor tiles, woven into
carpeting and floor mats, hidden in doorways, and seamlessly incorporated
into retail shelving and counters, making it virtually impossible for a
consumer to know when or if he or she was being "scanned."

- Individual tracking and profiling. If personal identity were linked with
unique RFID tag numbers, individuals could be profiled and tracked without
their knowledge or consent. For example, a tag embedded in a shoe could
serve as a de facto identifier for the person wearing it. Even if
item-level information remains generic, identifying items people wear or
carry could associate them with, for example, particular events like
political rallies.

Given the potential for widespread commercial use of RFID chips, we
believe that Congress ought to step in and require privacy protections
surrounding the use of this technology – in particular, the incorporation
into law of the fair information principles that are recognized around the

Government privacy and consumer privacy: not so separate Although I have
distinguished the privacy issues raised by the government’s adoption of
RFID tags and the private sector’s, the difference between the two is
quickly eroding from the perspective of individual privacy. Government
security agencies are increasingly making an effort to make use of private
sector information in anti-terrorism efforts that are oriented around vast
sweeps through Americans’ data in the hunt for terrorists. And the
government’s power to access private data is rapidly expanding through the
Patriot Act and other measures.

In general, privacy concerns are more serious when they involve the
government. But increasingly, the information that is collected about
people by a retailer or other private-sector corporation can and is ending
up in the hands of the government.


I believe that all the testimony you hear today will make clear that RFID
chip technology is growing rapidly and has incredible potential for both
use and abuse. I hope that my testimony has amplified two further points:
this growth is taking place largely outside of the control of the US
government and it will have significant impact on every American. What
that impact will be has yet to be decided.

Congress must be vigilant and involved in how RFID technology is deployed.
What is at stake is no less than how and when Americans will be identified
and tracked here and around the world. We are at a pivotal juncture, where
technology has presented us with the ability to implant monitoring devices
on everything. And their use is being contemplated on perhaps the most
fundamental travel document in the world. All without any guidance or
direction from Congress or the American people.

The decisions Congress makes on RFID chips will affect the direction of
this technology around the world. You must decide whether we want to go
down the path of incorporating RFID into our identity documents or to
choose a less invasive technology like the two-dimensional bar code. Over
the longer term, the Congress needs to consider how the fair information
principles that my fellow panelists have discussed can be applied to RFID
and the many other new technologies that have placed us on the edge of
becoming a surveillance society.

The debate must begin right now. If RFID technology is to be employed it
must be carefully controlled, yet none of those controls currently exist.
A fait accompli, presented by an unelected international body, is a real
possibility. We urge you to be vigilant in monitoring these developments
and creating legal controls to protect American privacy both domestically
and internationally. Thank you.


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