California hiccups on big data spy-friendly RFID chips in driver's licenses


California lawmakers took a step back on the issue of embedding radio-frequency identification chips in every state issued driver's license but don't expect the hold to last long. Wired reports the legislation, S.B. 397, will be reintroduced in the coming months. If the measure passes, it will add the Sunshine State to four others--Michigan, New York, Vermont and Washington--in a total embrace of sophisticated, highly trackable identification documents for undefined government purposes. 

Needless to say, privacy advocates are raising holy hell about using RFID in identification documents used within U.S. borders. Why the fuss, you might ask, considering RFID is routinely embedded in numerous documents from passports and payment cards, to school IDs and library cards?

For one thing, RFID chips can be scanned by sensors you don't realize are present and report your whereabouts and activities to the government. Not everyone is ok with that. If all of the states do similarly, the effect can become a nationwide surveillance tool by the government--and even by criminals.

For another, the four states who are already embedding RFID chips in state issued driver's licenses are already "linking them to a national database--complete with head shots--controlled by the Department of Homeland Security," according to the Wired article. That worries privacy advocates, who rightly point out this could amount to surveillance without a warrant or cause.

Advocates argue that these licenses are a benefit to citizens who travel frequently between countries. "The enhanced cards can be used to re-enter the U.S. at a land border without a passport," writes David Kravets in the Wired article.

And of course that sounds all peachy keen except nearly every citizen (and non-citizen for that matter) carries a driver's license in the U.S. whether or not they travel out of country. One can decide to have a passport or not. And if you do have a passport, you can leave it at home while you live your life inside these United States. However, one cannot easily function without carrying a driver's license on your person every day. Indeed, you could be fined for not having it on you if you drive. Since public transportation is not an option in much of this country, nearly everyone over the age of 16 drives.

In fairness though, the government can and does track you in many other ways. It is unclear whether blocking RFID chip use in driver's licenses will offer any real relief.

For more information:
- see the California Legislature webpage on the bill
- see the Wired article

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