ACLU Seeks Information On Government Tests of Controversial Passport Computer Chips

April 26, 2005 12:00 am

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NEW YORK-The American Civil Liberties Union today filed a Freedom of Information Act Request seeking the results of tests that the government has been carrying out in preparation for embedding radio computer chips in all U.S. passports.

“The government’s plan to put radio tags in our passports has broad implications for privacy and civil liberties,” said Barry Steinhardt, Director of the ACLU’s Technology and Liberty Project. “Yet the government has inexplicably kept the details of this testing process secret. The American people deserve to know, and we intend to find out, just what the capabilities of this technology will be.”

At issue are Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags, which the government is planning on embedding in all U.S. passports in the coming year. These RFID tags (sometimes called “contactless integrated circuits”) will allow anyone with a RFID reader to access and duplicate the contents of passports that come within range of a reader.

“One of the key questions we want to answer is: how far away can these chips be read?” said Steinhardt. “A press account from last year reported that in government tests the chips could be read from 30 feet away. The government has denied this but since they’re keeping the actual test results secret, it’s hard to know what to believe.”

Steinhardt pointed out that the ACLU had acquired its own RFID reader and found that RFID tags conforming to the same standard the State Department intends to follow could be read from at least a meter away – enough room to allow the tags to be read by readers placed, for example, in a floor.

The ACLU said it was filing the requests with the State Department and the National Institutes of Standards and Technology (NIST), which are carrying out the tests. A previous ACLU FOIA request filed at the State Department yielded documents that shed light on the American role in the international process by which the standard for the new passports was created.

“This is a technology that has the potential to leave us vulnerable to identify theft, to terrorists interested in singling out Americans traveling overseas, or to the emergence of routine tracking by the government or private sector,” Steinhardt said. “The public has a right to know what these tests are finding so that these passports can be subject to the full, informed national debate they deserve.”

The FOIA requests to the State Department and NIST, as well as a report on documents obtained through a previous request, are available at

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