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RFID & Identification

This blog entry is intended for membership educational purposes and does not necessarily reflect the policy positions of the American Library Association.

Part of the mission for the Office for Information Technology Policy is to make members aware of how technology policy is affecting members and the public. As part of that mission, I attended a round table on the Hill hosted by the Congressional Internet Caucus Advisory Committee, of which ALA is a member, on Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) and Real ID. The advisory committee holds events throughout the year to brief members of Congress on technology and Internet policy issues. This blog entry is written to educate members in case they are asked questions about these issues.

One item up for discussion at the meeting is the use of RFID chips in US passports. Most new issued passports contain an RFID chip that contains information found on the information page of the passport (including Name, Date of Birth and a high-resolution picture). The chips are specially designed to prevent the data being added to or over-written. Further, these chips are designed to only be read over short distances (10 cm). These passports have contain a foil cover to ensure that unauthorized individuals cannot gain access to the information contained on the chip. Passport readers must first unlock the chip by reading special optical characters that are then run through a computer algorithm. These passports are designed to help reduce identity theft from lost or stolen passports by allowing customs officials to match the data on the chip to the person and the passport.

Under the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI), the US government will begin to require documentation to travel to countries within the western hemisphere, including Canada, Mexico, Caribbean and South and Central American countries. Previously, no documentation was required to travel to many of these countries. To speed up the land border-crossing process, the government is considering issuing what are called “Pass Cards”. These cards will contain an RFID chip that will broadcast a unique identifier to a reader for approximately 20-30 feet (6-9 meters). This broadcasting allows for the cards to be read by scanners as cars approach border crossing areas. The time that it takes for the car sits in queue to cross the border allows the unique identifier to be linked to a database to pull down the information from a database. The Border Crossing agent can then have access to the data and not slow down the border crossing time. More information on the Pass Cards and WHTI and the ability to comment on the proposed rules for the PASS cards can be found at

Drivers licenses are frequently used as a form of identification for a variety of purposes. This form of identification is issued by states and territories. Each jurisdiction has different rules under which this form of identification is issued. In 2005, Congress attached the Real ID Act to a defense appropriation to create a national standard under which a drivers licensed could be issued. Members of the panel discussed this act and its impact.

Audio from the event is available at

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Jacob Roberts is the communications specialist for the ALA Washington Office.

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