New biometric technology is changing the way we travel. Radio-frequency ID chips? Iris scans? Facial recognition scanners? This isn’t science fiction: all of these advancements are in use in airports and at borders all over the world. But how secure are high-tech passports and RFID smartcards, and how much privacy are we trading for the convenience of beating long lines? Is this the slippery slope toward government and corporate invasion and control? Or should we happily submit to the paperless, cashless, tech frontier? Grab your biometrically encoded e passport and take a tour of the future, today!  


1. RFID chip passports

The future of the Canadian Passport

RFID chips have been embedded in government ID since Malaysia pioneered the epassport in 2002. Now over 95 countries on every continent have adopted some form of Radio-frequency technology in their passports. This year, Canada will begin the wide roll-out of a new RFID chip passport, likely at a sharp increase in cost to the applicant. Diplomats and federal officials have already been issued ePassports, and Passport Canada assures us that the technology is secure to the point of perfection (the e-passport profile on their website brags that there have been “no reported chip failures” and that there have been “no difficulties”). But if epassports are foolproof, why is there suddenly a thriving trade in passport protectors? Are merchants like this or this...

...or this...

...merely capitalizing on travelers’ fears of identity theft and invasion of privacy? Or do these people know something we don’t? Is the spy movie scenario of terrorists and kidnappers reading your epassport information from afar unlikely, or is there something to it? The Association for Computing Machinery's Threat Analysis Report describes how antennae can be used to eavesdrop on the communication between RIFD scanners and epassport holders, and leading techie website, the Register's report tells us that the antennae can be assembled with inexpensive, readily-available parts. The US government acknowledges that there are security threats involved with Radio-frequency ID. Somehow the Canadian epassport is more secure and reliable than that of its large southern neighbour. Regardless of the security concerns and costs, the RFID passport has arrived. This year Canada catches up to the US, the EU, and much of the rest of the world: nearly half of all United Nations member states now issue biometric passports, according to Contactless News.  

2. National ID Smartcards

Soon we will all have IDs            

Sophisticated documentation for international travel has arrived, and similar advancements are being made in other types of government-issued ID, like resident cards or identity cards. These cards combine a range of technology, including RFID chips encoded with biometric data, and more and more frequently they use the lure of convenience to ease worries about governments accumulating enormous databases of sensitive information. Hong Kong pioneered a smart ID card shortly after reintegrating with China to speed travel between the city and the mainland. Since then, many governments have introduced RIFD-chip-embedded cards, including Enhanced Drivers Licences (which are available in many Canadian provinces, including BC and Ontario) and national ID cards (like the ambitious project in China which aims to track people through 20,000 cameras equipped with face-recognition software). The future of the government smartcard has arrived this year in Russia, where a new card is being issued that combines ID, social security, public transportation, and debit payment with both contact and contactless capability.The mind reels a little at the convergence of function in this single card, and it’s hard not to indulge in a little unwelcome nostalgia for the bad old days of Soviet surveillance, or to make a few Eye of Sauron jokes. The card becomes compulsory in 2014, and critics complain that the security risk of a single piece of ID containing the key to a person’s identity and financial situation – to say nothing of the record of a citizen’s very comings and goings – concentrates a shocking wealth of data in the hands of Russia’s friendly security service. The controversy over the widespread use of these types of multifunction RFID cards is even greater than that over e passports. Critics from both the fringes... ...and center suggest that national ID schemes use the guise of security and convenience to extract sensitive detail about the lives of citizens to better control them. If you’re reluctant to combine biometrics with plastic in China or Russia, however, your life is about to get a lot more irritating, and it’s a safe bet that the rest of the tech-hungry world isn’t far behind.

3. Iris recognition / Retinal scans

They are Scanning My Eyes            

Perhaps no biometric ID captures the science fictional imagination quite like an eye scan. Sidle up to the sliding doors in the depths of the secret space weapon research bunker and peer into the machine. Whoosh. The doors open. Grab a ray gun. Or, more accurately, look into the scanner at a NEXUS kiosk at the Peace Bridge and spend the afternoon shopping in New York State. (There probably aren’t many rayguns for sale in Buffalo.) Iris recognition (a more reliable and prevalent scan than the retinal scan) is a key part of the Canadian frequent traveller NEXUS and CANPASS card programs. In fact, Canada is a global pioneer in the use of the iris scanner. NEXUS card use has been on the rise since the program’s creation. Have a look: NEXUS Participation from 2004-2007

NEXUS IDs include more sophisticated biometric data than the fingerprints required for other frequent traveller IDs like FAST (Free And Secure Trade) or SENTRI (Secure Electronic Network for Travelers’ Rapid Inspection) cards. India, another early adopter, is currently creating the world’s largest national biometric database using iris scans. An overwhelming majority of India’s billion-plus citizens are undocumented, and the ID-drive takes the next step by abandoning any physical card or paper. The iris scan is associated with your name and fingerprints, and citizens are assigned an ID number used to track tax and social security information.

Iris scanning is also routinely used by the US military, another example of sophisticated ID technology pioneered by a universally trusted institution.  

4. Facial recognition

Zapping Faces

Face detection is a similarly futuristic biometric scanning technology. What is face recognition? Just like iris scanning, face scanning offers a unique biometric imprint that gets associated with your travel documents. Algorithms match face scan data to the facial features encoded in an ID database or in photographs, and this techno logy is already available as a security feature in state-of-the-art mobile phones. The technology is in use at ultra-high-tech Incheon Airport in Seoul, where facial scans are used for express travel the same way iris scans are used for NEXUS travel between Canada and the US. Facial recognition is less effective than iris recognition, however, and a controversial trial program at Heathrow airport in the UK embarrassed authorities and proved that widespread adoption is less imminent than some might have originally thought: airport authorities failed to complete the technological requirements of the program before launching it and because of that the scanning devices repeatedly failed to work.


5. Hand geometry / fingerprints

Advanced Palm Reading

Of course the oldest biometric ID technology is the fingerprint, although there are far fewer ink stains and smudges on pages now. Fingerprint data is frequently embedded in ID smart cards (in the Hong Kong Identity card, for example), and some combination of card swipe and finger scan is required for identification.   Hand geometry is less secure than fingerprinting, and much less secure than iris scanning, so it seems less and less likely that this form of biometric ID will be adopted, despite its own science fictional mystique. Hand geometry is simply less unique a feature than a fingerprint or iris pattern, and the technology is more frequently used as security authentication in combination with other types of ID than it is used as ID on its own.  


Other types of biometrics include voice recognition, DNA recognition, and even sweat and earlobe recognition. But it seems unlikely that you’ll ever be wringing out your t-shirt or providing a hair or blood sample to enter Mexico for your February getaway. There is something about an earlobe scan that seems less intimate than giving over the pattern of your eye, that window to the soul, but maybe I’m underestimating how passionately people feel about their ears. Some types of biometric measurement, like the elegantly named “gait recognition,” don’t really apply to travel ID, although they do have plenty of surveillance and control functions. And there’s the rub. The more ID, social security and payment functions converge the way they have in Russia, or the more of the world adapts to contactless payment by RIFD by card or mobile phone, the more vulnerable we become to identity theft. It’s a two-sided problem: on one hand, governments have always struggled to keep their massive databases secure, and online investigators like Wikileaks have proven that supposedly confidential government data has a nasty habit of outing itself. On the other hand, what is the electronic equivalent of the paper shredder? Internet companies (especially social media companies) are frequently slammed for the complex maps they make of user preferences, searches, and transactions. Amassing information for marketing purposes is one thing, but government use of personal details might not always be as benign as a long-form census, especially if you’re talking about a repressive government. And every government is repressive to someone. We have no way of knowing how long or how detailed biometric tracking databases might grow. Maybe one day we’ll all be shocked to see a video file reminding us of a subway ride we took decades earlier. Maybe by then it will be a hovertrain. Every curmudgeon likes to joke about Big Brother, and many conspiracy-minded types see in RFID technology the first step toward chip implantation and cyborg enslavement, and wild-eyed religious nuts see evidence of the end times, calling biometrically-encoded ID the “mark of the beast.”

But give me a break. There are plenty of legitimate causes for concern with advances in travel documents, but they revolve around security and the dangers of centralized control, or the uncomfortable transition from choosing convenience rather than having it thrust upon you. That smart card is not a sign of the apocalypse, although it probably is a sign that someone will be keeping an eye on you. It seems most likely that elaborate user profiles of individuals get created to tailor services more efficiently and to help target marketing. This is at worst a little unsettling and at best a productive step forward. The growth of social media, smart phone, and voluntary biometric ID technology has proven that affluent and educated people are happy to trade plenty of privacy for a few shortcuts. The future’s here, and while you don’t have to be happy about it, if you don’t adapt a little you’ll be left behind. Or at least at home.  

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