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Email from a friend concerned about RFID enabled passports

I recently received an email from a friend who wanted to get the low down on RFID enabled passports. She had received the following suggestion from another source:

Some scary possibilities for identity theft are present with the technology chosen for new American passports – all newly issued American passports have it. A brief Google search seems to indicate Canada is using a more secure method for the new biometric passports – but details are sketchy and I’m unfamiliar with the background and story. I suggest wrapping your passport in aluminum foil (if it has the new technology) or putting it in a Mylar computer parts bag like this one which can probably be had for free if you ask for one at a store that repairs computers.

I would not remove my passport from the foil or bag until someone actually asked to inspect it. Even then it’s possible for criminals standing a few meters away to read the identity data from the RFID chip in the passport with a reader that will fit in a backpack.

I want to be clear that I am, by no means, an authority when it comes to passport RFID safety. However, I feel that while this is a theoretically true statement, the fact is that the serious concern is not centered around identity theft. To do this requires a very deliberate attack at close range. The real concern is that by using a very high powered reader and antenna array, an attacker could only activate the passport, however reading data at long range and high power is not likely. Even without being able to receive data, this would still allow them to determine that you were a person traveling from “a western nation” (the US or any other country that might use these types of passports). Therefore, the concern is simply one of being able to detect a US (or other) passport carrier in a group of people. Consider though, that while this is possible, the kind of equipment and expertise needed requires at least some level of sophistication, and if the attackers were that capable they are probably professionals of some sort and would already be able to pick out an American or Canadian or someone from the UK out of a group of natives without using the gear 🙂

At first, the thought of carrying your passport around in tin foil seems kind of goofy, and maybe a bit overkill… however there is one concern I can see that is valid, and may persuade you to put a tin foil hat on your passport. If someone were to tie an explosive detonation to a passport detection trigger, it would be a serious danger indeed. Basically, it means the device would not explode until an RFID enabled passport was within range, and the bomb planter was long gone. This is a very serious problem, and makes carrying your passport (or any other RFID enabled thing like a credit card, library card, etc.) around in tin foil while traveling, a bit more appealing.

I think this is a concern that the US government is slowly starting to address. In fact, they began issuing their Nexus RFID cards inside sleeves made entirely of sheet copper. I talk about this fact in my DataSafe wallet review. If you’re concerned about it, you might want to pick one up for use when traveling.

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