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Travelling with the Big Brother

The land of the free is imposing privacy-busting requirements on its visitors.

At America’s insistence, passports are about to get their biggest overhaul since they were introduced. They are to be fitted with computer chips that have been loaded with digital photographs of the bearer (so that the process of comparing the face on the passport with the face on the person can be automated), digitised fingerprints and even scans of the bearer’s irises, which are as unique to people as their fingerprints.

There are so many concerns that one does not know where to start:

For one thing, the data on these chips will be readable remotely, without the bearer knowing. And—again at America’s insistence—those data will not be encrypted, so anybody with a suitable reader, be they official, commercial, criminal or terrorist, will be able to check a passport holder’s details.

So we have unencrypted details about an individual, recorded in by an unreliable manner (biometrics). That’s what I call the worst of both worlds…

A second difficulty is the reliability of biometric technology. Facial-recognition systems work only if the photograph is taken with proper lighting and an especially bland expression on the face. Even then, the error rate for facial-recognition software has proved to be as high as 10% in tests. If that were translated into reality, one person in ten would need to be pulled aside for extra screening. Fingerprint and iris-recognition technology have significant error rates, too. So, despite the belief that biometrics will make crossing a border more efficient and secure, it could well have the opposite effect, as false alarms become the norm.

And far more unpleasant as you already will be ‘guilty’ of not having your non-papers in order.

The scariest problem of all is the remote-readability of the chip, which combined with unencrypted data on it, make it designed for clandestine remote reading. Deliberately.

The ICAO specification refers quite openly to the idea of a “walk-through” inspection with the person concerned “possibly being unaware of the operation”.

Privacy and liberty implications of this are enourmous… and it gets worse. Identity theft will become a matter of setting up such clandestine remote readings. Terrorists will be able to know the nationality of those they attack.

Even the authorities realised that this would be double-plus-ungood and are looking for ways to ‘protect’ the chip either by blocking radio waves with a Faraday cage or an electronic lock. As a result, some countries may need special equipment or software to read an EU passport, which undermines the ideal of a global, interoperable standard. And so we come the full joyous circle of government ‘compentence’…

38 comments to Travelling with the Big Brother

  • Chuck

    “For one thing, the data on these chips will be readable remotely, without the bearer knowing.”

    How about a metal foil envelope for your passport?

    Capitalism at work!

  • Chuck

    “For one thing, the data on these chips will be readable remotely, without the bearer knowing.”

    How about a metal foil envelope for your passport?

    Capitalism at work!

  • As a citizen of the “land of the free”, I’m not even slightly troubled by this. Visiting the US is a privilege, not a right. If you want to come here, you obey our rules. If you don’t like it, you are free to stay home.

  • ed

    Hmmm.

    As an American citizen it does my heart good to know that our DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles) has evidently come into control over this process and is busily annoying foreigners right alongside citizens.

    Serves you guys right. Nobody escapes the DMV. :)

  • Laugh now, arrogant Americans! You’ll soon have RFID chips implanted under your skin with your bank balance, political affiliation, prior convictions, and last 10 purchases, among other things. We can make them in China for less than $1.00.

    Seriously, I just had my US passport replaced, and it’s got a funny, faint photo. Hard to see, but the lady at the Consulate said, “It’s no problem! The machine can read it fine!” So our conversion has already begun, though I can’t detect any kind of chip in the new passport.

  • ed

    Hmmm.

    “You’ll soon have RFID chips implanted under your skin”

    As long as they don’t implant it in my buttocks. Having to bend over when asked to present my ID would be a little much.

    Then there’s the whole “swipe ID at the ATM” issue. :)

  • quentin

    I wonder how easy it would be to adapt those chic cigarette cases into passport holders?

  • John K

    As a citizen of the “land of the free”, I’m not even slightly troubled by this. Visiting the US is a privilege, not a right. If you want to come here, you obey our rules. If you don’t like it, you are free to stay home.

    Why, do you think this shit will stop at foreigners? Once Leviathan gets running, and those programs get funded and bureaucracies built, there is no stopping them. You will soon need similar ID to get on an internal flight, or a train journey, maybe there will be border checks on state lines. Internal passports? Do the letters USSR mean anything to you?

    By the way, I am sure your tourism industry would love it if we pesky furriners stopped coming.

    The USA has far more freedoms to own and use guns than almost any other country. Apart from that, you have as many freedom eating securicrats as the rest of us. These people must kiss Bin Liner’s photo every night before they go to bed, because he has given them what they could only dream about, a war without end against an enemy who can never be finally defeated, because we do not know who he is or where he can be found. We are in a state of eternal war with the boogieman people!

  • John K

    “For one thing, the data on these chips will be readable remotely, without the bearer knowing.”

    How about a metal foil envelope for your passport?

    That will just mark you down as a troublemaker with something to hide. Then you’ll get Homeland Security goons waving guns in your face and taking you to secret places for secret interrogation with secret people who don’t legally exist. Have a nice day!

  • Jacob

    “How about a metal foil envelope for your passport?”

    “Then you’ll get Homeland Security goons waving guns in your face …”

    Of course, when you use the metal foil envelope on your passport, you need to have an alternate RFID (purchasable for $10), to keep gov. reading machines happy.

  • Yes, Faraday cage already mentioned in the article is the metal foil you so cleverly suggest.

    That is not the issue but the fact that the original specs were designed so the passports can be read remotely in a clandestine manner. Well, if that is not scary, then I don’t know what is. This is now being ‘fixed’ but only because it would open the data to criminals – against whom these measures are supposedly meant to protect us. Yeah, right.

    Steven dan Beste, ‘foreigners’ is what made America what it is. How do you figure that visiting US is a priviledge? I certainly wasn’t happy living in a country that treats individuals (whether inside or outside its borders) as cattle without any right to movement and privacy? Oh wait, that was a communist country…

  • Sam

    Unfortunately, encrypting the data doesn’t actually improve security against semi-sophisticated attackers. The problem is that every reader will need the key(s) to read the data, hence, the keys will be widely distributed (and almost certainly stolen). It’s very similar to the problem Hollywood has with DVDs–every DVD player has to have the keys to read the disc, hence all someone needs to do is to reverse-engineer any DVD player–and s/he can pick the most vulnerable one.

  • Michael Farris

    “I’m not even slightly troubled by this. Visiting the US is a privilege, not a right. If you want to come here, you obey our rules. If you don’t like it, you are free to stay home.”

    This is not just about non USers who travel to the US.

    This daft idea puts US nationals who live travel outside the US at risk.

    This daft idea puts non-US nationals who have no intention of travelling to the US at risk.

    If you’re “not even slightly troubled” by this then you either haven’t read the article and don’t understand the issues or just don’t care about the safety of your countrymen when they’re abroad (or the safety of non-Americans at any time).

  • 1327

    Good god who thinks this rubbish up. Don’t they realise it could be used to target and kill American’s abroad ! Your technically aware Islamo-faschist buys a RFID reader via ebay and sticks it in a bag along with a microcontroller circuit and a small ammount of explosive. The RFID reader transmits constantly and when it receives a response that signals an American passport is nearby it explodes. OK not as cheap as your standard bomb but effective.

  • The Faraday cage option only protects the data so long as the passport is closed. All you would have to do is set up a clandestine reader wherever a passport can be expected to be opened. Hotel lobbies, bureaux de change and, of course, passport control spring to mind.

    The swipe option makes things more difficult for a data thief, but the same solution applies – just set up a scanner near locations where passports will be unlocked.

    If a swipe is going to be used anyway, why not just read the data by swiping the passport? One possibility is that the security services want to retain the ability to scan in a clandestine manner, using a backdoor to circumvent the protection. How long a backdoor of this kind would remain secure is an open question.

  • Daveon

    >Visiting the US is a privilege, not a right.

    It would appear tourists have been voting with their feet.

    I won’t go to the US on holiday anymore, only on business trips I can’t get out of.

  • Bert

    Great now when I travel I’ll need a tinfoil passport aswell as my tinfoil hat.

  • Ted Schuerzinger

    Julius wrote:

    One possibility is that the security services want to retain the ability to scan in a clandestine manner, using a backdoor to circumvent the protection. How long a backdoor of this kind would remain secure is an open question.

    An open question? I’d say three hours, max.

  • Verity

    Bert: “Great, now when I travel I’ll need a tinfoil passport as well as a tinfoil hat.”

    Why not have your passport photo taken wearing your tinfoil hat? Then the scanner couldn’t see your chip.

  • Den Beste: I can’t wait until you shut the fuck up.

  • Jack the Bear

    It’s time to go back to the Book of Revelation and revisit those passages about how none can buy or sell unless they carry the Mark of the Beast.

    Have Americans really become resigned to this kind of tagging and tracking? What was it that Ben Franklin said about trading liberty for security and ending up without much of either?

  • 1327: since when did Islamists become so picky about who they are blowing up? And, ID theft is so easy now, there is very little room left for any “improvement”.

    I realize that this system would contradict many libertarian principles, and I don’t like that. I also don’t think that it will be terribly effective protecting against terrorists. Despite all that, I think you guys are being a bit histerical, and are constructing some new bogeymen on top of the existing ones.

  • Tim Haas

    Attention furriners:

    As a U.S. citizen, I’m troubled enough for myself and Den Beste, with extra for a frothy topping. Keep on coming — and spending!

  • Stehpinkeln

    Much a-do over nothing. How many Japanese-Americans are still in internment camps? All of them were there by mid ’42.
    AFAIK all the Homeland security Laws have sunset provisions. That means they will need to be renewed every few years. So if you have a problem with it, see how your congress thing votes on the renewal of the law. Then check your ballot box.
    And SDB is right on target. If your NOT an America, it isn’t your business what we do. And if you don’t want to visit America, stay home, we don’t want you here either. Go visit Brussels instead. Watch them work on the new UN building.
    Why not a pocket in your tin foil hat to carry your passport in. Will EMP bombs be the terrorist weapon of the future? a good strong magnetic field will solve the problem, if there is one. Has there been testing to see what the anti-theft devices in stores do to the chips?
    Nothing quite like flipping bits at random to screw up your bytes and give the old magnetic reader a migraine.

  • Does anyone kno whatthe range on these chips is? I doubt an embedded chip would be powerfull enough to extend more than a few meters. Althoug it is a potential problem, I think the idea of passport-wardriving terrorists is a bit farfetched.

  • 1327

    The RFID’s I have played with at work have a range of a metre without effort and up to 5 metres with some messing about to optimise things. Although there are many types and standards for RFID’s out there.

    Incidentally with the right equipment (cost about 10 pounds) you can build a RFID scanner detector which warns of RFID readers many metres away.

  • Johnny Mnemonic

    The chips specified for the ICAO passport don’t contain iris scans or anything else, they have a read range of a less than 10cm, they only contain data that is on the passport in the first place (including the photo), the data isn’t encrypted so that anyone can see what their passport contains. Don’t waste the tinfoil hats on this one: I’m on favor of making passports faster to process at the airport and harder to counterfeit.

    p.s. the mandate to use these passports to get into the US only applies to passports issued after October this year (you can still use old passports without chips) and only applies to Visa waiver countries (eg, the UK).

  • This technophobic reaction to RFID is extremely amusing and informative. I was under the mistaken belief that you Libbies were simply 2-dimensional political thinkers. Now that the real problem has been exposed, it’s time to adjust the nomenclature.

    Libertarians = Neo-Luddites

    ((Ha! I laugh at myself.))

  • Personally I don’t much care about the efficiently digital collection of data like that. It’s as potentially bad as London’s CCTV coverage with facial recognition systems.

    Something not mentioned however is what I (as an IT admin face) see as a major problem with ANY biometric scanners for identification. If you have any form of identity theft or impersonation, you have no way of cancelling the account and opening a new one – how do you issue some new irises or fingerprints if someone is using yours?

    As someone said, they don’t need to actually have your biometrics – just to have read your chip and to emulate it.

    Your identity is your property and should be guarded like your cash.

  • Della

    As a citizen of the “land of the free”, I’m not even slightly troubled by this. Visiting the US is a privilege, not a right. If you want to come here, you obey our rules. If you don’t like it, you are free to stay home.

    No, no, no, you said it wrong, you should have said it like this:
    Als Staatsangehörige des “Landes vom freien”, bin ich nicht geringfügig beunruhigt durch dieses. Goerge Bush ist mein Führer und ich folge ihm. Alles, das er sagt, ist zutreffend.

    “Land of the free”…what a joke that phrase is becoming.

  • Kristopher Barrett

    So where in the hell did all of these bushevic statists come from?

    Assholes … they apparently like the notion of being tagged like dogs in the animal shelter.

    “Just a new innovation, friend citizen. We no longer need to stop you to ‘examine your papers, bitte’.”

    This new Owellian intrusion must be OK, I guess … since it was cooked up during the Bush administration.

    Well … this American is outraged. RFIDs are for chattal … not free human beings.

  • Tim Haas

    That is the first time I’ve ever seen anyone invoke Godwin’s law in German! Ausgezeichnet, Della!

  • Love the BushChimpHitler stuff, Della. That will get you respect wherever you go. Amongst Lefties. If you think that “land of the free” is such a joke, I invite you to cite a freer country. ((Of course you can’t, so your words amount to so much spew.))

    I’m interested because your retch is a perfect example of Libertarian 2-dimensional thinking. FYI, Conservatives seek the most freedom possible, not some cartoon vision of Absolute Freedom.

    And Kristo! Your orange drapes are to be mugged for, but you might want to look up “chattal.” Maybe you meant to write “cattle” or maybe “chattel.” Either way, it seems like so much Luddite prattle. ((Ha!))

    Your nazification was a nice touch too, and so revealing. Come to Vermont–we have a place for you in the Earth Peoples Park. There, you can live happily. No personal ID required. Piss down your leg, and nobody will notice. Just keep your gun loaded, and stay awake. Otherwise, you’ll get your Absolute Freedom and never see it coming.

  • Agammamon

    As a citizen of the “land of the free”, I’m not even slightly troubled by this. Visiting the US is a privilege, not a right. If you want to come here, you obey our rules. If you don’t like it, you are free to stay home.

    They’re not “our” rules Steve, not all of us are in agreement on this.

    On a different matter, the unreliability of facial recognition doesn’t by itself make this idea a non-starter. I can tell you from my own experience (in the US military) that living guards are horrible at matching faces to those little pictures on our ID and completely ineffectual if there’s any sort of time pressure – like long lines at the gate.

    I imagine the guys at the airport are somewhat better, given that this is what they chose as a career, but how they compare to an automated system is the question we should be asking.

    Still, the whole remote reading thing is something that needs to go away. In the US, who’s going to carry their passport outside of the airport anyway? So being able to read it remotely isn’t going to help any.

  • Agammamon

    “. . .they have a read range of a less than 10cm, they only contain data that is on the passport in the first place (including the photo) . . .”

    The current READERS intended to be used have a range of 10 cm with this chip.

    RFID chips emit their signal when powered by passing through a reader’s field. Their range can be varied by increasing the readers emitter strength or its receiver’s sensitivity.

  • Della

    Dearest Helen,

    Love the BushChimpHitler stuff, Della. That will get you respect wherever you go. Amongst Lefties.

    I’m not a lefty, I’m not a righty either, I’m anti-statist.

    If you think that “land of the free” is such a joke, I invite you to cite a freer country. ((Of course you can’t, so your words amount to so much spew.))

    Well if we look at Economic freedom then there are of course a dozen countries freer than the USA, including the UK.

    I think the UK is also more politically free than the USA although I can’t find graphs to back this up, non citizen immigrants can’t vote in the USA wheras most of them can vote here since they are either EU or commonwealth citizens (1.9 billion people potentially have the vote here), I guess that’s got to count for a lot. Also there is a huge chunk of the citizen populous that can’t vote in the US because they commited a felony at some point in their life whereas we don’t have lifetime bans like that.

    So far as freedom of movement is concerned the UK is more free as we are not banned from going to certain counties like people from the US and we can live and work in 30 other countries just by going there without too much paperwork, including really nice places like Tahiti and Switzerland. The US, as is clear from he article that started this thread is clamping down on freedom of movement even for the purposes of tourism.

    You do beat us on gun freedom, but then again Switzerland seems to have more liberal gun laws than the US and they are higher in the economic freedom ranking than the US and they are very politically free too.

    There are other freedoms of course, like the freedom to drive extremely fast where the Germans beat the US by having no speed limits on certain roads, and the freedom to eat unpasturised cheese where the French beat the US by having a huge variety of unpasturised cheeses, quite a few of which are very nice.

    I’m interested because your retch is a perfect example of Libertarian 2-dimensional thinking. FYI, Conservatives seek the most freedom possible, not some cartoon vision of Absolute Freedom.

    Very much more freedom is actually possible, you guys are trying warp the concept of freedom to fullfill the inherintly fascist political agenda that US conservatives seem to be persuing at this time.

    Your nazification was a nice touch too, and so revealing. Come to Vermont–we have a place for you in the Earth Peoples Park. There, you can live happily. No personal ID required. Piss down your leg, and nobody will notice. Just keep your gun loaded, and stay awake. Otherwise, you’ll get your Absolute Freedom and never see it coming.

    I’ve been to Vermont, it was alright, I prefer Québec though, if I’m in that are of the world, nicer, cheaper, safer, got the Queen on their money. Acording to this page they fly the “rebel” (confederate) flag in the Earths Peoples Park, I think that is the epitomy of what’s wrong with America. Americans fly that flag as a mark of freedom when it was in fact the battleflag of slavers.

  • Dela, I hope I can be a dear to you, because I am sincere. I appreciate your ernest response and apologize for being too harsh. Nothing irks me more than an anti-American American and I realize now that you are not. Honestly, I’m sorry for that. Here are a few thoughts.

    Your political affiliations are not my concern, just a strawman. I said your nazi spew would earn you the respect of idiots, and there’s no doubt of it. Identifying American Conservatives with Euro Fascists looks like the expression of a repressed psychology to me. Sorry, but I don’t brook gratuitously vulgar ravings.

    I also said that you could not cite a freer country than the US. Despite the lecture, you can’t. Hahaha

    Switzerland, where they impress all males into military service? Hong Kong, an unrepresented annex of China?? Singapore, where they publicly thrash people for peeing in elevators??? New Zealand, a country that could be overrun by any decent New York City street gang???? I disqualify all of warmongering Europe because the entire continent would sprechen auf Deutsch without the continuous protection of the US. Care to deny it?

    Now please understand that we love the UK. I have no desire to disparage the country of my ancestors in any way. But let’s not even begin to compare freedoms in a monarchy to a republic, mkay? House of Lords? You make me laugh. Want to visit Cuba? Have a ball, and give my regards to the slave labor. I’d rather eat frozen custard and play putt-putt at the Jersey shore.

    Perhaps there is some calculus to find one or two tiny countries freer than the US. So what? I have traveled from Maui to Bermuda to the Yukon to the Gaspe to Popocatepetl to Baja and back–76 states–with no more than a credit card and driver’s license. Try that anywhere else in the world. What’s more, the US does not impose confiscatory taxes on fuel, so we can motor on to Anchorage if we feel like it. Try driving an Airstream to Yalta, and see how far you get at a Euro per liter or whatever. And as far as speed limits go, they are no more than formalities in much of rural America. So much for freedom in Germany, where you can’t legally comment on the Chancellor’s hair tint. What a joke.

    My First Amendment rights are very important. I have a big W sign out by the road just to annoy my Dean-supporting neighbors. We do have strong limits on media, but that doesn’t bother me a bit. Of course, Libertarians defend graphic misogyny to the death, so enjoy your porn.

    Yes I agree, the French are unparalleled cheese eaters. ‘Nuff said.

    Your comments on the Confederacy and its flag are naive. Same with me and European history, so let’s leave it at that.

    My comments on Vermont were self-mocking. It is a vacuous state, filled with Leftists and Libertarians–both extremist buffoons in my experience. I enjoy my visits to Quebec too, but their government is ruinous.

    In summary, you have offered nothing to refute my statements, or reinforce the ruble foundation of Libertarianism. You spasms over our RFID passport technology are groundless. Voting rights for felons and illegals? Good luck with that. I’ll take the US, thank you.

  • moge

    Our privacy is a thing of the past. All we can do is perform a futile rear-guard action. Oddly, what’s doing us in is marketing.