Big Brother Will be Watching You
New ID Scanners at Borders Raise Privacy Alarm
Monday, December 1, 2008 6:19 PMBy: Dave Eberhart
The federal government has already deployed new detection machines that can scan citizens without their knowledge from as far as 50 feet away and "read" their personal documents such as passports or driver's licenses.
The Homeland Security Department touts the high-tech devices as increasing security at border crossings, but privacy advocates are raising all sorts of red flags.
Critics say the new machines, which read one's personal information right through a wallet or purse, do so without consent or a warrant and may set a worrisome precedent.
The devices, called Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) machines, allow officials to read remotely any passports, pass cards, and driver's licenses that contain special chips with personal information.
The RFIDs are so sensitive that, even before a vehicle pulls up at a border checkpoint, agents already will have on their computer screen the personal data of the passengers, including each person's name, date of birth, nationality, passport or ID number, and even a digitized photo.
The new gadgets are in place, or soon will be, at five border crossings: Blaine, Wash.; Buffalo; Detroit; Nogales, Ariz.; and San Ysidro, Calif. They are slated to have a dramatically expanded presence in June.
Lee Tien of the Electronic Frontier Foundation argues that the technology could make Americans less secure because terrorists or other criminals may be able to steal the personal information off the ID cards remotely.
Tien and other critics warn that people up to no good can use their own RFID machines in a process called "skimming" to read the information from as far as 50 feet.
Indeed, consumer privacy expert Katherine Albrecht maintains that the chips create the "potential for a whole surveillance network to be set up." Among other abuses, she says police could use them to track criminals; abusive husbands could use the technology to find their wives; and stores could trail the shopping patterns of patrons.
Homeland Security, however, rebuts the criticism, arguing that the embedded chips surrender only a code to machine readers. That code is then broken in order to display the personal information on the border agents' screen.
Meanwhile, the same agencies that are issuing the newfangled IDs supply a sleeve that keep out all prying electronic eyes when not in use.
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