Mich. lawmaker urges governor to rethink RFID in licenses

A Michigan lawmaker is calling upon Gov. Jennifer Granholm to extricate the state from an agreement made with the Department of Homeland Security to foist upon motorists there an Enhanced Driver's License that includes a long-range RFID chip.

DHS says it is also working with Arizona, California, Michigan, Texas, Vermont and Washington to distribute the same technology to their drivers. (Note: Important update below.)

"Michigan entering into a federal agreement to put unencrypted, long-range RFID computer chips into our driver's licenses presents a huge privacy risk with very little benefit", says Republican State Rep. Paul Opsommer, in a statement. "I don't think we need RFID in our licenses period, but even if we did, there is absolutely no reason it couldn't be short range and encrypted. The federal government has made some bad technology choices that they now want to cram down the rest of our throats. Canada is totally rethinking this whole program from the ground up, and so should Michigan."

Leaping to second Opsommer's motion is Hugh D'Andrade, a staffer with Electronic Frontier Foundation, who writes on that organization's blog: "Rep. Opsommer has good reason for concern. Studies have found that the long-range RFIDs embedded in the new IDs broadcast a unique number that can be read remotely from tens of feet away, using tools that are inexpensive and relatively easy to assemble. Michigan citizens who carry the IDs could be reasonably concerned about being tracked when they attend a political rally, go to a gun show, or take part in any controversial activity."

According to the Department of Homeland Security Web site, there is absolutely nothing for Opsommer, D'Andrade or anyone else to be concerned about:

State-issued enhanced drivers licenses provide proof of identity and U.S. citizenship. These new documents are being developed by many states to comply with travel rules under the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI). Enhanced drivers licenses can be used by U.S. citizens instead of a passport to cross the border with Canada, Mexico.

Enhanced drivers licenses will make it quicker and easier to cross the border back into the United States because they will contain: a vicinity Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) chip that will signal a computer to pull up your biographic and biometric data for the CBP Officer as you pull up to the border; and, a Machine Readable Zone (MRZ) or barcode that the CBP officer can read electronically if RFID isn't available.

No personally identifiable information will be stored on the card's RFID chip or be transmitted by the card. The card will use a unique identification number which will link to information contained in a secure database. This number will not contain any personal information.

DHS issued this press release trumpeting Michigan's participation in October 2008.

When I called for comment, Gov. Granholm's press office transferred me to the press office of Michigan Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land, who oversees the licensing program. A staffer in Land's office said it might be tomorrow before they have anything to say about Opsommer's request.

Personally, I'm not what you'd call a privacy zealot, having long ago come to grips with the fact that we have next to none of it left to defend. And, I would dearly love to trust my government when it offers reassurances of the kind DHS proffers on this matter. But I don't.

So, I'll take my driver's license without the chip, if it's all the same.

(Update, 3:40 p.m.: Well, it turns out I can get my wish should I ever move to Michigan, as a spokeswoman for Secretary of State Land tells me the RFID-enabled Enhanced Driver's License is "strictly voluntary" and that anyone who wants an old-fashioned one sans chip can still have one. "The secretary sees (EDL) as a convenience that allows people to not carry a passport." While the spokeswoman stressed that she cannot speak for Gov. Granholm, she did say the EDLs are scheduled to be made available at the end of this month, so I'm thinking critics best not hold their breath waiting for a reversal.) 

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