• United States



by Paul Kerstein

Electronic Tags Used to Track Immigrants

Sep 06, 20059 mins
CSO and CISOData and Information Security

The use of new electronic devices to track products, pets, and peopleusing radio frequencies is growing at what privacy advocates say is analarming rate, given concerns that the technology is being implementedwithout proper safeguards, in both the public and the private sectors.

Radio frequency identification (RFID) technology is used around theworld in everyday consumer products from produce to beer kegs to DVDs.Increasingly it is being tested as a method to track people and inschools, prisons and transit systems.

Most disturbing to privacy advocates and civil libertarians are USgovernment proposals to use RFID tags in passports and drivers’licenses, and in a new pilot program launched this summer that hasplaced RFID tags in immigrants’ visas.

RFID devices, from pinhead sized minichips to flat tags inserted into apiece of paper, contain miniscule antennas that pass the information itcontains after entering the range of a scanning device. Most RFIDtechnology in use now is “passive,” which means it does not contain aninternal power supply and can only transmit information from a distanceof up to about 30 feet. “Active” tags have an internal power source,can be read from further distances, and can store information sent froma transceiver.

In August of this year, the Department of Homeland Security begantesting RFID tags at five border crossings under the United StatesVisitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology program, or “USVISIT.”

The program applies to people without green cards who enter the US witha visa, whether for work, school, research or tourism, or those from 27mostly European countries who are traveling under the “Visa WaiverProgram,” which allows travelers to stay for up to 90 days without avisa. Over the next year, people in these categories will be issued new”I-94″ visa cards embedded with an RFID tag at five border crossingsincluding Nogales East and Nogales West in Arizona, Alexandria Bay inNew York, and the Pacific Highway and Peace Arch in Washington.Homeland Security Department requires that the I-94 cards be carried atall times.

The tag transmits a serial number which US government officials can useto access biographic and biometric information stored in a governmentdatabase, including the individual’s passport number, US destinationaddress, arrival and departure information, a digital photograph, anddigital finger scans.

During the testing phase, travelers with I-94s hold up their RFID tagas they drive through the border crossing. A reader device, about thesize of a computer screen, records entry and exit of individualscrossing the border on foot or by car, transmitting information from upto 55 tags per vehicle.

At a demonstration of the RFID tags for the press at the Alexandria Baycrossing, US Customs and Border Protection Executive Director PT WrightJr. said that during the testing phase, information collected throughthe RFID tags will not be used in determining a person’s admissibility.”We don’t want anyone concerned that system was not working that day,”Wright told reporters. “There will be no use of this information toadversely affect someone’s status, so if you’re issued one of these,you’re free to report exit as you normally do.”

Homeland Security officials say the RFID tags will enhance security,facilitate legitimate travel and trade, and ensure the integrity of theUS immigration system. The Department, which is accepting publiccomments on the RFID US-VISIT program through October 3, estimates thecost of the pilot program to be about $100 million.

“The actual information that is transmitted by that [RFID] chip is onlya number,” explained Wright. “If you’re able to have the technology tocapture that number, it wouldn’t do you any good; it would only be anumber. Only when it goes through our secure lines is there a link tothat person’s identity.”

But some critics say any technology that tracks a person remotely andinvisibly could compromise their privacy. The Electronic PrivacyInformation Center (EPIC), in comments submitted to DHS in July 2005,urged the Department to abandon the use of RFID tags completely.

“Any time a visitor is carrying his I-94 RFID-enabled form, his uniqueidentification number, which is linked to his individual biographicinformation, could be accessed by unauthorized individuals,” the groupwrote. “So long as the RFID tag or chip can be read by unauthorizedindividuals, the person carrying that tag can be distinguished from anyother person carrying a different tag. Foreign visitors could beidentified as such merely because they carry an RFID-enabled I-94 form.”

EPIC points out that in the Department’s own “Privacy ImpactAssessment,” it admits there is a risk that the RFID tag “could be usedto conduct surreptitious locational surveillance of an individual;i.e., to use the presence of the tag to follow an individual as he orshe moves about in the US.”

Privacy advocates also say the use of “contactless” RFID inidentification is unnecessary. It would be easier and more secure forthe government to attach conventional barcodes to visas and scan themup close, the way library book or credit cards are used to accesspersonal information.

Lee Tien, senior staff attorney with the Electronic FrontierFoundation, told The NewStandard that RFID is popular because it isconvenient, “but also because it has the spill-over tracking benefit.”Tien believes that once enough businesses install RFID readers, or whenthe reader technology becomes available to the general public, a personcould theoretically be tracked numerous times each day.

“Two, three years ago when we were talking about this, people thoughtthat it was crazy,” said Tien. “What we’re seeing today is a strongtrend toward that pervasiveness where different entities, for their ownreasons — some will be commercial, some will be government, some willbe library, some will be transit systems, you name it — they will allbe looking at deploying RFID censors and RFID tags.”

Tien predicts these technologies will likely become more interoperableand standardized. “And then we’ll have a situation where there will bea lot of cards, a lot of chips, a lot of readers all around us, andthen there will be a really serious problem,” he said.

Immigration attorney Angelo Paparelli, a partner with the California-and New York-based law firm Paparelli and Partners, is concerned aboutsecret courts or rogue officers using RFID to identify individuals.Paparelli theorizes that people carrying RFID tags, who might beattending a public demonstration or seeing a controversial speaker,could be remotely identified as foreign nationals, asked to providetheir I-94 card, and questioned about their activities in the US.

“That’s not something we ordinarily do these days, even in the post9/11 era,” said Paparelli. “We don’t just go into the street and asksomeone to see their papers because normally you have no way ofknowing, absent some sort of racial or ethnic profiling, which isn’tappropriate under the law.”

In addition to compromising the rights of foreign nationals in the US,Paparelli is also concerned that other countries will reciprocate bypassing laws to use RFID tags on American travelers abroad.

“This is the kind of stealth pilot program that very few people haveheard about,” said Paparelli, “And it troubles me that there is notdebate on what is right and what is wrong under the circumstances.”

As federal and state officials also continue to develop possible use ofRFID in passports and driver’s licenses, the technology is becomingmore pervasive in other parts of society, a trend Barry Steinhardt,director of the American Civil Liberties Union Technology and LibertyProgram, sees as a drift toward becoming a surveillance society.

“The explosion of computers, cameras, sensors, wireless communication,GPS, biometrics and other technologies in the last 10 years is feedingwhat can be described as a surveillance monster that is growingsilently in our midst,” Steinhardt wrote in July 2004 comments to theHouse Committee on Energy and Commerce.

Consumer and privacy groups express fears that RFID tags couldeventually be used in clothing tags, shoes and suitcases without aperson’s knowledge, detected by readers hidden in floor tiles andcarpets. With this use of RFID tags, detailed information about where aperson shops or travels could be gathered by marketers, sold toretailers, and stockpiled in databases. Meanwhile, RFID is movingbeyond approved uses that inventory cattle and electronics, to moreprograms that monitor human behavior and activity.

A school district near Sacramento tested RFID technology earlier thisyear, as reported by TNS. The pilot program enabled teachers to trackattendance using a handheld scanner capable of reading personalinformation embedded in tags worn around the students’ necks. Thedistrict canceled the controversial program after pressure from parentsand civil rights organizations.

The Pitchess Detention Center in Los Angeles County plans to launch apilot program this fall outfitting 1,800 prisoners with RFID braceletsto monitor violent behavior. If the program is judged successful,Sheriff’s department officials want to expand it to the entire jailsystem, which incarcerates about 18,000 people.

And former secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompsonrecently volunteered to have a “VeriChip” RFID tag inserted into hisbody, to promote the product for use in storing medical records.Thompson is also a board member of Applied Digital, the company makingVeriChips.

As the technological inhibitions against surveillance disappear andRFID expands, says Steinhardt of the ACLU, the laws and institutionsthat protect against abuse need to be strengthened. “Unfortunately, inall too many cases, even as this surveillance monster grows in power,we are weakening the legal chains that keep it from trampling ourprivacy.”

By Catherine Komp – The NewStandard