How RFID Works

Government-issued RFIDs

While many consumers happily -- or obliviously -- buy merchandise tracked with RFID tags, some people are up in arms about the U.S. government's legislation mandating that passports be embedded with RFID microchips.

On Aug. 14, 2006, the U.S. Department of State began issuing electronic passports, or e-passports. Prompted by the terrorist attacks of Sept.11, 2001 the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) proposed the e-passport as a security measure for air travel safety, border security and more efficient customs procedures at airports in the United States. The e-passport's enhanced security features -- a chip identification number, digital signature and photograph that acts as a biometric identifier -- make the passport impossible to forge.

The e-passport will help improve security, but with so much personal information embedded in the document, there have been many concerns raised about the e-passport's potential for identity theft. Two possible forms of identity theft that could occur with e-passports are:

  • Skimming: when someone uses an RFID reader to scan data from an RFID chip without the e-passport holder's knowledge.
  • Eavesdropping: when someone reads the frequencies emitted from the RFID chip as it is scanned by an official reader.

However, the DHS insists that the e-passport is perfectly safe to use and that proper precautions have been taken to ensure user confidentiality.

  • For protection against skimming, the e-passport contains a metallic anti-skimming device. This device is a radio shield inserted between the passport's cover and first page. When the e-passport is closed, it can't be scanned at all; when it's open, it can only be read by a scanner that is less than 3.9 inches (10 centimeters) away [source: Department of State].
  • To guard against eavesdropping, DHS has mandated that all areas where the e-passport is scanned be thoroughly covered and enclosed so that signals cannot be picked up beyond the authorized RFID reader.

The e-passport costs $97. While the cost may seem steep, the cost of installing RFID readers in airports is even more staggering. Adopting the e-passport will require gradual change, but aut­horities are already discussing what added security features and improved biometrics the next series of e-passports will have.

The debate over e-passports pales in comparison to debates over human chipping. Next, we'll learn what RFID microchips are doing in livi­ng things.