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Monday 28 March, 2005 

Good afternoon

Imagine, while traveling overseas, that you're wearing a big target on the back and front of your shirt saying 'American traveler'.  One of the things we're taught to do is to prudently blend in with other people, no matter where we're traveling.

Of course you wouldn't choose to wear a sign saying 'I'm an American tourist', but the State Department is proposing a new type of passport that would have the same effect.  Which is why I'm sending you this special newsletter now - we have a short term opportunity to try and prevent this.

In a misguided attempt to make our passports more secure, the State Department is proposing to embed an RFID chip into every passport.  This chip will contain our personal details - name, date of birth, passport number, and even a digital picture, and can be read by anyone reasonably close with an RFID chip reader.

Anyone from petty thieves and pickpockets, up to identity thieves, kidnappers and terrorists would love to know who in a crowd is an American foreigner and therefore an easy victim.  Another way to abuse this information is to just hang out at an airport and get the details of departing passengers - their houses may be unattended and good choices to burgle.

This data is stored, unencrypted, in the chip.  If the government wants to make our passports more secure, other technologies exist that don't have these downside risks.

The State Department acknowledges these risks, but says in response that to 'skim' this information is technically very difficult.  That probably means it would take a 16 year old two hours to build the necessary skimmer/reader device, using off-the-shelf and inexpensive components.

The State Department says these chips can only be read from 4" away.  Here's a device openly for sale for only $299 that can read RFID chips from 450 ft.

The State Department has also suggested people could wrap their passports in tinfoil to insulate them from people with unauthorized readers!

The State Department is accepting comments on this proposed change to our passports through next Monday.  If you don't like this idea, why not write to the State Department and tell them.

(a)   The most convincing form of communication is a personal letter, addressed to

Chief, Legal Division
Office of Passport Policy, Planning and Advisory Services
2100 Pennsylvania Ave NW
3rd Floor
Washington, DC 20037

But if you're going to send a letter, you need to get it in the mail, now, to beat the deadline.

(b)   Alternatively, you can send an email to

[email protected]

(c)   Alternatively, you can go to this website - RFIDKills.com - operated by well known consumer crusader Bill Scannell, and fill out the form he provides and have it sent off for you.

(d)   Why not send copies of your letter/email to your senators and congressman, too; so that they know what is proposed to be enacted by regulation rather than legislation by the State Department.

Keep your comments brief and positive, and simply say, in your own words, that you feel adding RFID chips to passports adds unacceptable risk and privacy compromises, and ask the State Department to consider other/better solutions to the need to enhance passport security.

Here is the full official notice of proposed rulemaking about the RFID chips.

Please pass this email on to other people and encourage them to act as well.

Until Friday, please enjoy safe travels

              David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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