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Not Letting Chips Follow Where They May

State bill would prohibit radio-frequency technology from being used to track people.

June 22, 2005|Nancy Vogel | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — It begins with a computer chip that can pick up and transmit an electronic signal. When stuck to a new television or a car traveling a FasTrak toll lane, it instantly transmits the TV's model or the driver's identification.

Businesses believe it will revolutionize the way items are tracked from warehouse to checkout. Even the Department of Defense manages supply lines with the technology.

But should government use this radio-frequency identification to track people too?

Some California lawmakers don't think so and have supported a bill to ban certain uses. Unlike driver's licenses and bank cards with magnetic stripes, cards with radio-frequency technology would not have to be individually swiped through a machine to release their information. They could be read from afar -- without the owner's knowledge.

That's why Sen. Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto) thinks the technology should never be used for forms of identity that everybody must carry. His bill, SB 682, would ban state and local governments from including the "contact-less" electronic tags in driver's licenses, student ID cards, health insurance cards and public library cards.

The legislation is the first of its kind in the nation and runs counter to a U.S. State Department plan to put such electronic tags in passports beginning this year. Privacy rights activists back the legislation, saying they can foresee the technology's use by thieves to steal people's identities, by terrorists to target Americans, by stalkers to track victims or by the government to take names at political events.

Other supporters of the bill include AARP, Consumer Federation of California and the California Alliance Against Domestic Violence.

The technology consists of a computer chip with an antenna energized by radio waves emitted by a reader. The chips can be scanned from several feet away and through a wallet or purse, depending upon the strength of the electronic reader, which can be purchased for a few hundred dollars.

"The government shouldn't be forcing people to carry documents that are going to broadcast their identity," said Nicole Ozer, technology policy director with the Northern California chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, a sponsor of Simitian's bill.

The bill passed the Senate last month with bipartisan support and no industry opposition. But the electronics industry -- a leading employer in Simitian's Silicon Valley district -- has lately become aware of the bill and has begun lobbying against it, fearing that it would complicate the technology's development. Manufacturers say there are simple ways to encode the data emitted by the tags to prevent abuse, and they call Simitian's bill a Luddite response to a useful technology.

"We want legislators to legislate behavior and not the technology," said Timothy Heffernan, spokesman for Symbol Technologies Inc. of New York. He compared fears of radio-frequency identification to concern in the mid-1970s that Uniform Product Code bars on grocery store items would be used to mislead consumers.

Last week a coalition including the American Electronics Assn., Kimberly-Clark Corp., Oracle Corp., Texas Instruments and Philips Electronics wrote Simitian to oppose the bill.

They called it an "overbroad assault on the technology."

"The approach SB 682 takes to public policy is deeply flawed," they wrote, "as it will produce law that will necessarily prohibit current and future beneficial uses and innovations not yet known to the Legislature -- innovations that will save time, save money, and most importantly, save lives."

The federal government appears far less concerned than California lawmakers about abuse of radio-frequency identification technology. A recent General Accounting Office report shows widespread use or planned use of the technology within the federal government, including the Department of Labor tracking case files and the Environmental Protection Agency tracking radioactive materials.

Kelly Shannon, spokeswoman for the State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs, said the radio-frequency ID planned for new passports won't be readable from more than 4 inches away and will include a cover with metallic fibers that block radio waves.

The State Department is evaluating whether to require encryption, she said, but no decision has been made.

Simitian's bill was inspired by the little town of Sutter, 40 miles north of Sacramento, where parents erupted in protest this spring after an elementary school issued radio-frequency ID badges to every student and installed readers in classroom doorways to help teachers take attendance.

"You want to track cans of soup, fine. You want to track cattle, fine. You want to track elementary school students, not so fine in my opinion," said Simitian.

Originally, his bill would have banned state and local governments from mandating the use of such identity cards except at highway toll booths, in prisons and for young children in government hospitals.

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