ARLINGTON, Va.--In at least a dozen states, the electronics industry
has been waging a battle against a rash of proposed laws aimed at
limiting--and in some cases outlawing--use of electronically readable
chips in personal identification documents.
No states have enacted such laws yet, but bills have been up for
debate in California, New
Hampshire, Washington, Rhode Island, New Mexico, Illinois and Missouri,
among others, during the past couple of years, panelists said Wednesday
at an industry conference here about smart card use by the government.
Those proposed laws have been introduced because of concerns raised by privacy advocates over the possibility that as radio-frequency identification, or RFID, chips, become more commonly used in government-issued IDs, they could be abused for secret
tracking or unauthorized collection of information about the people who
carry the IDs.
State legislators have been far too quick to believe "misinformation"
spread by "the tinfoil hat crowd," said Richard Varn, a consultant who
counts RFID technology manufacturer HID among his clients.
Varn, formerly Iowa's chief information officer, joined other industry
advocates in urging chipmakers to drown out what they deemed a campaign
based on fear, uncertainty and doubt. Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering, for instance, started life as a way to oppose supermarket discount cards and has found a new cause in opposition to RFID. CASPIAN founder Katherine Albrecht has co-authored a book that's described as outlining how RFID fulfills "biblical prophesies" in a way that's "uncannily similar to the prophecies of Revelation."
The industry agrees with privacy advocates that skimming information off
RFID-laced documents should be a crime bearing strong penalties. But the
panelists said they would urge state governments to make use of laws they
already have. Many states, for instance, already prohibit theft of
information via magnetic stripes on credit cards and other documents, so
they could simply broaden and update those laws to make it clear that
RFID chips are also included in that category, Varn suggested.
"Consumers don't know what RFID does, so to them it's voodoo, it's
magic," said Marc Anthony Signorino, technology policy director for the American Electronics Association, which represents about 2,700
companies. "Part of our job is to educate them about what it can do and
what it cannot do."
Some of the proposed state laws, the bulk of which now lack adequate
support or lie dormant, have contained such broad definitions of
concepts like "personal information" and "tracking device" that they
risked wiping out a sweeping list of technologies traditionally lauded
by politicians, the panelists said. They said some of the sweeping
measures would have outlawed everything from the enhanced 911 system, which can automatically
pinpoint a caller's location, to RFID-equipped hospital bracelets aimed
at keeping tabs on newborn babies, to the toll-collecting transponders
affixed to car windshields.
When alerted to such unintended consequences, many states backpedaled on
their requirements, the panelists said. "The longer they start thinking,
the more carve-outs they have to grant, so the legislation ends up
looking like Swiss cheese," Signorino said.
But the industry's fight continues, as not all states have shelved the
idea yet. A bill introduced just last week in the California legislature
would prohibit the issuance of state driver's licenses or identification cards that use "radio waves to either transmit personal information remotely or to enable personal information to be read from the license or card remotely."
It's most likely a response to upcoming regulations from the U.S.
Department of Homeland Security prescribing standards for states to roll out a uniform national identification
card, which may be required for all Americans by 2008. The
law, known as the Real ID Act, has drawn widespread opposition from
states, and the New Hampshire House of Representatives recently approved a bill that would prohibit it from participating.
The new DHS regulations, expected later this year, likely won't require the cards to employ RFID because it's too volatile a political issue, said Robert Atkinson, a former analyst at a Democratic Party-affiliated group who recently founded a new think tank called the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. Even so, he added, "I just can't stress enough the importance of really fighting this fight now....We're just lucky these bills didn't pass."