RFID Chips in Passports
Every U.S. passport issued in the last seven years now comes with a radio frequency identification chip, or an RFID chip. These chips contain a digital version of the information on the written passport including the passport holder’s name, nationality, gender, date and place of birth and a photograph. Today, nearly forty countries use RFID chips to enhance security and make travel easier. RFID chips function as “ePassports.” They can be quickly scanned and make passport fraud easily recognizable. If the written pages of a passport have been altered, authorities will be able to gain the original passport information from the RFID chip. RFID chips are also used to locate passports that have been lost or stolen and digitized passport information makes it easier to replace a lost passport.
The State Department first began issuing RFID chips in passports in order to counter terrorism. In spite of the security benefits of the device, privacy activist groups were largely opposed. Many feared that the RFID chip could be exploited to allow access to passport information without the knowledge of the passport holder. Specifically, these groups feared that RFID chips could be read remotely with a radio device. Information from an RFID chip could be used to track a person’s movements, gain their personal information or steal their identity.
In response to widespread criticism, the State Department have taken several security precautions. The RFID chips are now encrypted to prevent tampering. To make sure the chips cannot be read from a distance, the design of the RFID chip will be changed from an active to a passive RFID chip. A passive RFID chip does not send out radio signals and therefore cannot be picked up unless the passport holder is within inches of an RFID scanning machine. New passports will also be given a shielded cover intended to block out radio waves.
While these measures have assured many that RFID chips can be employed safely, they have not quieted the fears of all. Some have even taken to breaking the RFID chip in their passport in a radical move to ensure their own privacy. While this does not necessarily invalidate the passport, many airlines now rely on RFID chips as identification and may reject passports that do not scan.