I’ve written previously (including this op ed in the International Herald Tribune) about RFID chips in passports. An article in today’s USA Today (the paper version has a really good graphic) summarizes the latest State Department proposal, and it looks pretty good. They’re addressing privacy concerns, and they’re doing it right.
The most important feature they’ve included is an access-control system for the RFID chip. The data on the chip is encrypted, and the key is printed on the passport. The officer swipes the passport through an optical reader to get the key, and then the RFID reader uses the key to communicate with the RFID chip. This means that the passport-holder can control who has access to the information on the chip; someone cannot skim information from the passport without first opening it up and reading the information inside. Good security.
The new design also includes a thin radio shield in the cover, protecting the chip when the passport is closed. More good security.
Assuming that the RFID passport works as advertised (a big “if,” I grant you), then I am no longer opposed to the idea. And, more importantly, we have an example of an RFID identification system with good privacy safeguards. We should demand that any other RFID identification cards have similar privacy safeguards.
EDITED TO ADD: There’s more information in a Wired story:
The 64-KB chips store a copy of the information from a passport’s data page, including name, date of birth and a digitized version of the passport photo. To prevent counterfeiting or alterations, the chips are digitally signed….
“We are seriously considering the adoption of basic access control,” [Frank] Moss [the State Department’s deputy assistant secretary for passport services] said, referring to a process where chips remain locked until a code on the data page is first read by an optical scanner. The chip would then also transmit only encrypted data in order to prevent eavesdropping.
So it sounds like this access-control mechanism is not definite. In any case, I believe the system described in the USA Today article is a good one.