What’s the frequency?

Bipartisan move to block government snooping technology

SN&R Graphic By Sarah Hagadorn

What if the government has the power to remotely read your personal information and track your movements using a tiny chip in your driver’s license?

That’s what keeps Joe Simitian up at night. Well, maybe not up at night, but it bugs the heck out of him.

“Say you want to go to an anti-war rally. Or say you want to go to a gun show,” the Democratic state senator from Palo Alto explained. “There’s nothing to keep the police from setting up a reader,” and having instant access to the personal information of everyone attending that event.

That’s just one scenario that prompted Simitian to write a package of bills restricting the use of a technology called radio-frequency identification.

The tiny RFID “chips” are radio transmitters that can send information to a remote receiver or computer database.

The technology has been around for decades, since the Germans used them in their aircraft in World War II (that according to an article in RFID Journal). In more recent decades, RFID has been increasingly used in big-box stores and other retail outlets and warehouses to keep track of inventory. And “chipping” a dog or cat and using the technology to track down lost pets is becoming standard practice.

It’s not that Simitian has anything against RFID technology per se. He actually describes the little bugs as “a minor miracle, with all sorts of good uses.” But RFID transmitters also have been popping up in more unusual settings.

In 2005, administrators at a Sutter County elementary school tried issuing RFID technology in student badges to track pupil attendance. The school district quickly nixed the plan when faced with angry opposition from parents and civil-rights groups.

“We’re talking about a unique situation where the government has the power to compel you to carry this technology,” said Simitian. “I don’t believe the parents of six million California school kids gave up their right to privacy.”

RFID also is beginning to be used in credit cards, and the federal government is considering using the technology in government documents like driver’s licenses, health-care cards and other forms of identification.

Simitian’s Senate Bill 29 specifically would prohibit schools from using RFID to track students’ presence or movements on campus. SB 28 would ban the California Department of Motor Vehicles from using RFID in driver’s licenses. Both bills have passed the state Senate by wide margins, traveling on for consideration in the Assembly.

The legislative package also includes bills that would set criminal penalties for remotely reading or “skimming” personal information contained on an RFID device without authorization, and outlaw the forced “subcutaneous implantation” of any RFID device.

The bills have the support of the American Civil Liberties Union, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Gun Owners of California, among others. Opposed are the High Tech Trust Coalition, a consortium of industry groups, including the California Chamber of Commerce and the American Electronics Association, along with HID Global, a major RFID manufacturer.

Last year, when Simitian floated another bill, SB 768, which would have imposed similar restrictions on the technology, it was vetoed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who argued that the proposed law might contradict federal rules then being written as part of the sweeping national-identification law known as REAL ID.

Ironically, the RFID industry remained neutral on Simitian’s 2006 effort. This more comprehensive package has prompted fierce opposition.

“To our knowledge, there has not been a single showing of harm” from the new technology, said Roxanne Gould, spokeswoman with the High-Tech Trust Coalition. “This legislation could stop or slow down investment in what could really be a positive technology,” said Gould.

“It singles out a technology instead of focusing on bad behavior,” agreed Kathleen Carroll, spokeswoman for HID Global. She added that misuse of RFID for criminal purposes is what the Legislature really ought to be focused on, not restrictions on the technology itself.

Nonsense, said Simitian. “We have rules about how you store plutonium, because a law that says ‘don’t steal plutonium’ isn’t good enough,” he said.

It’s not just the ACLU-loving left wing of the Senate that agrees with the Democrat.

Conservative state Senator Tom McClintock, R-Thousand Oaks, gave a hearty endorsement of the Simitian bills on the Senate floor. Most of McClintock’s GOP colleagues joined him.

“There’s a very simple principle here,” McClintock told SN&R. “Your movements and your behavior are none of the government’s business. Not in any free nation.”

Using RFID to snoop on citizens’ whereabouts ultimately could lead to the government using that information to harass or intimidate people, said McClintock.

But far short of that, “It doesn’t matter how they might abuse this information. It’s none of their business to begin with.”