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Travelling with the Big Brother

The land of the free is imposing privacy-busting requirementson 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 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 is 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’…

Cross-posted from Samizdata.net

4 comments to Travelling with the Big Brother

  • Carl Bennett

    This was announced about a year ago – and anyone in the UK who doesn’t want to have to apply for a US Visa needs a new biometric passport.

    It’s so crap – the only thing you can do is ask the jerk at the airport how many terorists they’ve caught. They always like this question. And they never seem to have any answer either.

    I came out of Miami once when the good ol’boys of the NAtional Guard were running around the airport with water bottles on thier pistol bels and full camo outfits – they looked like Christmas came twice that year. There were two queues to have your bag checked on the way out of the US because the 911 terrorists were going out….oh hang on, that doesn’t work, does it? Anyway, being a True Brit I wanted the shortest queue so kept on switching to the shorter one so I could get through the carry-on bag check (now there’s a name for a film). After getting to the head fo a queue that had lasted over 90 minutes, NOT ONE STUPID SECURITY GUARD checked my bag because they could not decide which queue I was in.

    By the way, given in the US intenral airline pilots are paid under $30k, guess how much they’re going to pay the IT data entry people and how much loyalty that’s going to buy?

    It doesn’t matter – none of these measures are to stop terrorism or protect anyone at all. They are to make people afraid. Who said terrorism doesn’t work?

    It’s just a question of who’s doing it – and we voted for them. Hmmm, think I need to start my own blog!

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  • J

    As far as the remote reading and unencryption goes…

    1. They plan to use RFID to implement this. RFID (currently) has a max range of 3 meters, and many implementations are about half that. Newer versions of RFID have good penetration (i.e. go through walls, metal etc), but the range is still limited.

    2. RFID (currently) suffers from poor quality control. The chips are often defective and/or have a short lifespan. This has slowed their uptake in many areas, and there will be a real issue if the chip on you passport fails.

    3. RFID is a two way process. A low frequency signal is emitted by the reader. The chip converts this signal into electrical power, and uses this power to return a higher frequency signal that contains your data. I see no reason why someone won’t create an detector for the power signal. This would alert you to any attempt to read (any) RFID chip that might be about your person. I daresay the gvt would like this about as much as police scanners and radar detectors, but there you go.

  • Jason Strickland

    Not all us Americans are in support of the big brother technology that, post-911, has either been approved for daily use or under developement for future data aquisition. Many of us find it deeply disturbing that “someone” thinks they have the right to spy just because the have the ability. Lawlessness reigns when personal accountability goes out the window.