Electronic Design

No Place To Hide

Are you ready for electronic passports, voiceprints, DNA checks, and iris scans? Black boxes in your cars that can log your speed and when you use your brakes and seat belts? Employers tracking you via radio-frequency identification tags and Global Positioning System technology in your company-issued car or cell phone? ID chips implanted in your body? That's the relatively new stuff.

We're already being tracked by government databases and private companies, such as banks, credit card companies, and (where lawful) car rental agencies. But how does protecting your privacy stack up against the threat of terrorism?

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) sought and received personal passenger data from 72 airlines in November—data that could include credit card and telephone numbers, travel itineraries, and special meal requests that could indicate a passenger's religion or ethnicity.

But then it seems the TSA pulled a fast one. According to a report by Homeland Security Department Acting Inspector General Richard Skinner, the TSA "misled" the public about its role in obtaining data on about 12 million airline passengers it said it needed to test a new computerized system that screens for terrorists.

While the report admitted to only one case where data was inappropriately revealed to the public, it concluded the TSA was inconsistent in protecting privacy. The report also disclosed that the TSA had a much broader role in getting and using passenger data than had been previously disclosed. It now appears to be up to the U.S. General Accountability Office (GAO) as to whether the so-called Secure Flight technology actually protects personal information.

Then there's contactless microprocessor-based smart cards. Fort Lee, New Jersey-based On Track Innovations wants to use them to create electronic passports. The Israeli Army uses these passports to control traffic along the Palestine border as it tries to separate the good guys from the bad guys by checking hand geometries, fingerprints, and facial recognition data.

OTI CEO Ohad Bashan would like to see the technology adopted globally. (In fact, the U.S. Department of State is testing several prototypes.) By the end of this year, all new U.S. passports are expected to have an embedded chip loaded with the holder's name, date of birth, and biometric data.

Bashan believes the encrypted cards improve privacy because they only carry specific information necessary to the application. "It's not like they have your medical records and you're going to the bank," he says. "This is a period when we may have to compromise our own privacy to make sure that anyone entering the country is authorized to enter the country."

You may be sitting on a "black box" when you drive your car. The automotive industry prefers calling it an event data recorder, or EDR, and they're already in millions of vehicles.

The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says over 65% of 2004 model year cars sold in the U.S. have EDRs. These devices will be required to log up to 42 data points by 2008. Eventually, they may be able to transmit any or all of this data, in real time, over wireless networks.

Even more intrusive is the Federal Drug Administration's recent approval of the first implantable RFID chip for use in human patients. The VeriChip's big selling point is that it enables doctors to scan a patient's medical history, drug interactions, and other data, even if the patient shows up in the emergency room unconscious.

The chip was developed by Applied Digital Solutions, which has sold 30 million virtually identical injectable ID chips for pets and livestock over the past 15 years. However, privacy advocates argue that the technology could allow unauthorized sources, including insurance companies and health organizations, to tap into patients' medical records.

TAGS: Automotive
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