CFP: Mark of the Beast Erasable Tattoo


It took a representative of the government of these here United States to give the Computers, Freedom, and Privacy conference its first moment of unadulterated excitement.* Frank Moss, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Passport Services, energetically defended the RFID passport proposal in a panel on passport security risks. Clearly, Moss was here to be the turd in the punchbowl, and the crowd had a good two minutes' hate as he dismissed fears about the proposal as "poppycock."

The popular concern about the RFID passport is that it will be readable at a distance, so while you're at a bar in Beirut or sleeping in your Karachi hotel room, a terrorist will be picking up all your personal information. Moss had a bunch of reasons why this wouldn't be possible, and a pissing competition started between him and Barry Steinhardt, director of the ACLU's Technology & Liberty Program. Steinhardt says the passport idea is "policy laundering," where the feds avoid having to push an unpopular domestic policy by instituting it through an international organization, then coming back and saying they're just bringing US standards up to international "norms."

Anyway, Moss did a pretty good job of defending his end, but the scuttlebutt is that the readability issue is a red herring. The real issue is that the RFID passport is being pushed as a convenience measure that will allow you to go through borders more quickly. It's clearly a measure to enhance security. Between the increasing amount of information it will make available (and the increasing number of security flags that will go up as a result), the delays that will crop up when people try to pass through customs with chips that are either intentionally or unintentionally damaged, and the infrastructure Homeland Security and its foreign counterparts will need to build to handle the increased amount of information and the growing number of people who will be getting flagged, the RFID passport will almost certainly make travel slower, not faster. There may be enough security advantages to make that delay worth it, but the government shouldn't be promising that disimprovements will actually be improvements.

* I mean the only unadulterated excitement at the conference itself. The high point for me came at an event held at Paul Allen's Science Fiction Museum, where I got to see Kirk's chair from the Enterprise. The swivel seat radiates power and authority up close just as it does on TV, but I was surprised to see that the panels along the armrests seem to be made of wood, not corbomite.