January 27, 2005 3:36 PM   Subscribe

Visitors to the US tagged with RFID chips? They already use them on goods and livestock, but soon also foreign visitors will be earmarked. Will it make the US a safer country?
posted by kika (33 comments total)
I'm one of those foreign visitors as a European living in Canada with family over the border.
posted by kika at 3:48 PM on January 27, 2005

It seems a weird idea, unless there is also going to be a network of RFID sensors that can read the tags once people are in the country and roaming free. (for a given value of free, it would seem)

And will it make things safer? Only if you have real time tracking of people's tags and a security structure than can deal with millions of tourists every year. And if you have that, well, you've got more problems with your country than mere terrorism.
posted by DangerIsMyMiddleName at 4:04 PM on January 27, 2005

stupid idea, and what Danger said. It's like we don't even want tourists anymore.
posted by amberglow at 4:11 PM on January 27, 2005

So do we have to have this things surgically planted under the skin, or do we just have to walk around with them? Sounds like an unworkable idea either way.
posted by seanyboy at 4:24 PM on January 27, 2005

And I always thought the darien gap would be the toughest part of my canada -> chile trip idea. I guess the USA figured out how to match its meet!

Just one more reason to stay in Canada where it's safe enough I don't have to be tagged like a dog.
posted by shepd at 4:28 PM on January 27, 2005

AskMeFi, 2009: "I'm going to New York for vacation (I'm Australian), and was wondering which hotel has the nicest government-appointed minders."
posted by stonerose at 4:31 PM on January 27, 2005

The rfid tags don’t transmit. They just repeat a signal sent by a transmitter. Anyone here know the range on these things? I mean I can see how you could be tracked as you pass through an airport or drive up to a border point but could you be tracked across a longer range?
posted by arse_hat at 4:36 PM on January 27, 2005

Will it make the US a safer country?


Anyone here know the range on these things?

Depends who you believe. Numbers I have heard range from one to ten meters. Bigger than that and they require too large a battery to be effective.

Now then, what I would like to know is how we are going to get illegal visitors to use the things.
posted by ilsa at 4:43 PM on January 27, 2005

If they're at all like the RFID security passes that I've heard about, I think the range is under 2 feet.

If they're like the RFID transponders used for things like the 407, the range is at least 50 feet, maybe 100.
posted by shepd at 4:44 PM on January 27, 2005

arse_hat: the biggest ones, that they use on container ships, have a range of a few hundred metres. But, yes, usually it's a matter of feet at most. They do transmit, actually. The base station induces a current in them that fires them up, and they then transmit their serial number. It's not the radio range that's the issue, it's the induction range, from what I understand. To get round this, the ship units have their own power supply, whilst the rice grain sized ones do not (which is what makes them so cool, as you don't need to worry about batteries, but it also limits the usable range).

Either way, RFID tags are tiny things, and far too easy to lose. What you really want is nice armband. Perhaps in a bright colour.
posted by DangerIsMyMiddleName at 4:46 PM on January 27, 2005

Fine by me. As long as we get to take turns hanging out of a helicopter using an air rifle to embedded the chip, Mutal of Omaha's Wild Kingdom-style.

But seriously, the range on most RFID [PDF] isn't very far. As far as privacy goes, they are just like UPCs in the sense that they are a pointer to actual information in a database. Unless you have access to the database, the information contained is non-sensical. I would think magnetic stripes with information (like most DLs) on passports would be cheaper, better tested and less creepy.

how we are going to get illegal visitors to use the things.
Embedded it in the application for Bush's Migrant Worker Amenesty program. Duh!
posted by MiltonRandKalman at 4:46 PM on January 27, 2005

stonerose: funny.

one more reason for foreigners not to visit. are the cheap blue jeans worth it? score one for cosmopolitanism.
posted by blendor at 4:46 PM on January 27, 2005

It's like we don't even want tourists anymore.

Less tourism, plus a weaker dollar keeping fewer Americans from travelling abroad. Educational insularity with fewer school visas for foreign students.

Anyone reminded of how Soviet Russia kept people from coming and going? This country gets less and less fun each and every day.
posted by AlexReynolds at 4:48 PM on January 27, 2005

*shakes head* and here i thought "oh, fingerprinting tourists. now that's just idiotic. no one will stand for that!" but then it happened.

and on the general "mutual of omaha's wild kingdom" note, i think we should properly tag tourists around the ankles and track them much in the way we do birds. tourists... pigeons... there's lots of them and they'll eat whatever you throw at them. pretty much the same thing. lots of head-bobbing.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 4:58 PM on January 27, 2005

i think we should properly tag tourists around the ankles... Now where's the pleasure in that?

"Uzbeks spotted...Your 3'O Clock...100 meters out."
"They're sure fast, look magestic when they run in a herd like that. The one in front with the knock-off Air Jordons is the Alpha"
"...Bag 'em"
posted by MiltonRandKalman at 5:06 PM on January 27, 2005

I hope they aren't suppositories.
posted by arse_hat at 5:11 PM on January 27, 2005

MiltonRandKalman: The "hanging out ot the helicopter shooting illegals crossing the Rio Grande" was the first image that came to mind when I read the FPP title.

I'll believe anybody really cares about terrorists entering this country when they do something about the illegals crossing from Mexico every day.
posted by Enron Hubbard at 5:13 PM on January 27, 2005

I wonder how much they will sell for? If they aren't implanted well beyond where the sun doesn't shine, then what good are they? If you have been on any grid, for more than 5 minutes, they know everything about you. If I read in medline, I get spam within the same day, offering me cures for whatever I was reading about. I have become used to my fishbowl, in fact I almost rolled it over on a wet highway today.
posted by Oyéah at 5:38 PM on January 27, 2005

My god, this is the stupidest idea since the Terrorist Stock Exchange.
posted by five fresh fish at 5:41 PM on January 27, 2005

Some info about the tags. Max range is 30 meters with battery powered tags.
posted by arse_hat at 5:54 PM on January 27, 2005

I wonder how much they will sell for?
For Homeland Security? Probably no more than 3x what private industry pays for them. The cheapos go for about 50 cents, these are the type likely being used in testing at Walmart. The 30 meter chips that arse_hat references are likely to be in the range of several dollars.

more info at the EFF
ps. You can fry about how there work. Then throw a dollar in the donation jar while you're at it.
posted by MiltonRandKalman at 6:06 PM on January 27, 2005

whoops bad paste. That last part reads: ps. You can fry them
posted by MiltonRandKalman at 6:07 PM on January 27, 2005

I wrote a fair amount about RFID Security some time ago. See here.
posted by effugas at 6:26 PM on January 27, 2005

So any bets on how long it will take for a federal 15 years and or $3 million law against possessing a tool capable of wiping out rfids?
posted by arse_hat at 6:28 PM on January 27, 2005

I'm fucked off about you guys and your useless paranoia (useful paranoia, of course, is entirely different).

Among other things, thanks to your demands for changes in passport format, I have to get a new passport for a planned US trip this year, which means I have to punt my current one, which has my valuable and painfully aquired UK certificate of abode in it. There goes my opportunity for further contracting in London, until I can get through the whole bureaucratic and expensive process again.

The fingerprinting etc is stupid and humiliating.

(I hear that in a tit for tat move, Americans are being fignerprinted when they land in Brazil. Apparently they're not happy about it...)

If it weren't for the need to visit my sister, who is too encumbered with children to visit me, I don't know why I would ever visit the US again. I can get to South America via a Qantas flight to Santiago now.

posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 6:39 PM on January 27, 2005

This solves nothing and is precisely a case of a solution in search of a problem.

I'm really beginning to agree with some that terrorism is nothing more than a chimera meant to keep us in fear and pliable for exactly these type of measures. The question then is: what for?

That's where you're gonna need your tinfoil hat as you step into the realm of a totally unaccountable, single party government which will always have a reason for whatever it decides to do. As in, whose hand are we played into were something to seriously occur? Who will be there with open arms as we run and scream in terror? Who else, but that which needs the terror in order to justify its actions abroad in a war against a tactic.

Take this account found on this archiveless blog for instance:

Back in 2003 one of the two pipelines leading to Phoenix to supply 3,000,000 people with gasoline ruptured in the middle of the desert. A crisis ensued: long gas lines, higher prices, mild panic among consumers. I saw sales in my store plummet as people were making economic decisions based on driving. Fleets of tanker trucks came into the city a few days into the situation to try to meet the demand as a result of the broken pipeline. Back then, I thought, "where is the Department of Fatherland Security?" How easy would it be to stop this city in its tracks with two garage-made bombs placed at each one of these pipelines? The answer would be, of course, very easy. I never believed in the whole terrorism fantasy and the pipeline thing pretty much solidified my ideas.

As this society becomes more and more insane because of the daily abuse and conditioning, it could become shall we say, uncouth, to even seriously debate the merits of anything an apparatus of a police state deems neccessary outside of the law and always beyond the reach of legal recourse.

Again, "tinfoil hat" stuff, but that's what happens when you use your imagination. Heaven knows "they" use "theirs".

Chipping people eh? Eeeeesh. Let me off.
posted by crasspastor at 7:19 PM on January 27, 2005

I hope they aren't suppositories.

Although it would probably boost the Immigration Officer recruitment program if you had to bend over for your RFID, it seems to be a variation of the Electronic Road Pricing / Speed Pass system.

"You guys just hide in the trunk and all we have to do is drive through..."
posted by missbossy at 8:52 PM on January 27, 2005

grapefruitmoon: This seems to be a meme that keeps popping up every few months:

*shakes head* and here i thought "oh, $NEW_USA_PARANOIAC_IDEA. now that's just idiotic. no one will stand for that!" but then it happened.

The boiling a frog metaphor has been debunked, but it's all too appropriate anyway.
posted by sninky-chan at 2:14 AM on January 28, 2005

Some facts about RFID

I'm as pissed off as everyone else about "anti-terrorism" being used as an excuse for just about ever nasty proposal the government wants to sneak through. I'm also not keen on giving up any of my fast-diminishing privacy, especially to people who I have no reason to trust.

What I would also like to do though, is to explain a bit about RFID, which (thanks to alarmists like CASPIAN) is getting a particularly bad rap. Disclaimer: I am a graduate student working with RFID hardware on the purely technical side, I have nothing to do with privacy or policy issues.

RFID tags are like barcodes: they're about the same size, (often bigger), they only give you data when you ask for it with a reasonably expensive reader, and they're pretty easy to damage. Unlike barcodes they work where you can't see them, e.g. through cardboard boxes or on store shelf. But just because you can't see them doesn't mean they work everywhere perfectly (which is the implicit claim in much of the paranoia-mongering I read). In fact getting tags to be read is a major pain for most companies implementing them now.

While some battery-powered tags (as used in shipping containers, and Speed/EZ-Pass systems) work hundreds of feet away, they are expensive and heavy. The tags that would be used in US passports, and presumably in visas as well (when they talk about tagging immigrants and visitors, I believe they're talking about in the visas, not putting tags under the skin. Sub-dermal tagging, while it's worked for animal tracking for *years*, has not yet been extensively tested on humans.) are passive tags. There is no way for a passive tag to transmit without receiving power from a reader. The longest range I have heard of for passive tags is about 20 feet. That's a single tag in an empty room suspended from a piece of thread. Fold that tag inside a passport and put it in someone's pocket or purse? You'd be lucky to get 1 foot.

Most readers now work in the 902-928 MHz band (in the US), which is an unlicensed band used by cordless phones, baby monitors, etc. It's so noisy that new cordless phones tout their operation at 2.4 GHz, because of the reduced noise clutter. All this noise makes it harder for the readers to work.

Myth: Tags are the size of a grain of sand.
Fact: The *chip* is that big (ever seen the actual silicon on a Pentium? It's not that big either), but to be any use at all it needs an antenna. Antenna size is directly related to the tag's performance, and optimum size is determined by physical laws. A UHF tag antenna really needs to be around a half-wavelength, or about 17cm long. You can coil it up or spread it in weird ways, but it's got to be that long. Much smaller and the tag won't work well at all and its range will drop dramatically. To get the same range you'd have to boost the power of the readers. And do it massively. In order to double the range of a tag you need a 16-fold increase in power. The FCC is not going to license that sort of thing any time soon.

Myth: Someone can walk by you with a reader and scan everything in your backpack
Fact: That's *really* hard to do, even in a controlled environment. The technology will improve, but even then we'll be bound by the physics: power and antenna size requirements will not change for this technology.

Sorry for the long post, but it's important to separate the fact from the fiction. It's possible these tags will work much better in future, and we need to be vigilant now, but we also need to be realistic. When the government talks about RFID chips in passports, they don't understand the difficulties themselves. Honestly? The only difference is that they won't have to open it to the right page to scan the information in it, but it'll still have to be awfully close to a reader.
posted by hugo at 3:36 AM on January 28, 2005

When the government talks about RFID chips in passports, they don't understand the difficulties themselves.

This, actually, is why the technical side isn't as interesting to me as the political side. Just because Dr. Squeege's nefarious plot to blow up the sun was doomed to failure doesn't mean we shouldn't be worried about what Dr. Squeege is up to, because he really thought it would blow up the sun.

And if Dr. Squeege is in charge of the wealthiest country in the world... someday, he might actually be able to blow up the sun.


*resolves to refer to Bush as "Dr. Squeege" from now on*
posted by sninky-chan at 4:59 AM on January 28, 2005

I guess the USA figured out how to match its meet!

Obviously I'm not the only one to have Demolition Man flashbacks when reading this story.

This is just wildly creepy and yet another good reason to avoid the place.
posted by Mitheral at 10:50 AM on January 28, 2005

Hugo, you said RFID hasn't been extensively tested in humans but I thought I heard about at least one (rich?) kid who has been tagged. Anybody remember this?
posted by Jim Jones at 11:03 AM on January 28, 2005

It hasn't been _extensively_ tested, but people have certainly done it. The CIO of the Harvard Med School had a chip implanted last week, and there's a club in I think Spain where you can get a payment chip put in your hand to pay for drinks without your credit card. Plus of course they've been putting them in animals for ages (my parents' dog has one), so presumably it's only a matter of time before it could potentially be widespread. But there's a lot of red tape (I hope) to get through before that.
posted by hugo at 2:48 AM on February 2, 2005

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