Two national business travel organizations are joining privacy groups in opposing a federal plan to embed radio frequency identification chips in passports.
The Business Travel Coalition and the Association of Corporate Travel Executives say the chips could jeopardize the safety of Americans in foreign countries.
The groups suggest the plan would risk the identities of those traveling abroad and could result in physical harm. The chips would be able to be read by anyone with a powerful reader from up to 60 feet away in airports or hotels, said Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Pennsylvania-based Business Travel Coalition, which represents large buyers of business travel services such as DaimlerChrysler and Black and Decker.
"You don’t have to read the information as much as you need to identify the person is an American," Mitchell said. "We’re really creating a market by putting this in place. You’re giving a whole new opportunity to the bad guys, whether it’s grabbing U.S. passports and selling them for a couple grand or kidnapping the CEO of Cigna. This is not a stable, dynamic kind of environment. The technology continues to improve and you’re giving an incentive to bad guys to find work-arounds or to find stronger readers."
The Virginia-based Association of Corporate Travel Executives calls the chips electronic identification "bugs."
"More of a computer chip than an actual transmitter, the device may be capable of identifying the presence of U.S. citizens in crowds, in hotel lobbies, on trains, or even on the street to those in possession of a fairly unsophisticated receiver," the group said in a statement. "The signal can be detected up to dozens of feet to tens of yards. It may also be capable of transmitting personal data, such as your name, passport number, and photograph."
A spokeswoman said the U.S. State Department is in the midst of several tests to reduce the risk of skimming, or the unauthorized reading of the chips.
"They’re going to involve incorporating technology into the passport book cover that will address the risk of skimming when the passport book is mostly closed," said Kelly Shannon, adding international standards require that chip readers read no farther than 10 centimeters, or about 4 inches away.
Shannon said 62 million valid passports are in the hands of American citizens. Last year, the State Department issued 8.8 million. Mitchell said 15 percent to 20 percent of all U.S. originating traffic is headed to international destinations.
In government tests last summer, the readers, initially developed to track inventory in department stores and warehouses, could be described "as no more than breadboard prototypes," Shannon said.
"There were situations where communications between the chip and reader could be detected from a distance considerably more than 10 centimeters," she said, adding the communication was detected but no data could be intercepted.
"Now we see readers that are encased and tweaked for better specifications such as the 10 centimeter read rate," Shannon said. "We’re seeing obviously this is not going to be an issue."
Mitchell said his research shows radio frequency identification chips were used first during World War II to tell German and American aircraft apart.
"It had nothing to do with understanding what the message is or signals were, just a different type of signal, an encrypted one that could with confidence tell us that’s German aircraft," Mitchell said. "That’s the same way this could be hijacked today."