“Off switch” could curb privacy concerns for new Ontario driver’s licence

A U.K.-based company is eager to put its technology on your next driver’s licence so you can turn your card on and off with a touch-sensitive switch.

Peratech Ltd. has developed a switch that allows cardholders to turn on or off their RFID-enabled cards. By pressing a finger firmly on a specific spot on the card, a user is able to deactivate the RFID chip that is broadcasting potentially sensitive information.

With stricter border-crossing standards coming soon to a border near you, Ontarians will be given the option of speeding up entry into the U.S. by carrying an RFID-enabled card, or enhanced driver’s licence (EDL).

Privacy advocates are concerned that drivers will unwittingly leak out personal information as a result of these cards, and are looking too Peratech for assistance.

“We have a unique material that transitions from a very low conducting point to an almost pure conductor,” says Philip Taysom, the director of Peratech Ltd. “The material is very similar to a bathroom sealant.”

Taysom attended a Toronto conference on Jan. 28 hosted by Ontario Privacy Commissioner Ann Cavoukian. The conference focus was on the importance of developing technologies with privacy already embedded into them.

“The only time you need your licence engaged is when you’re actually crossing the border,” she says. “When you’re driving around Ontario on a daily basis, you don’t want it on.”

Cavoukian has been working with Taysom and GS1 Canada to embed privacy into the new Ontario licences. GS1 is the non-profit organization that invented the standard for the RFID chip that will be used in the new cards. Dubbed “GEN2”, the card standard is known as a vicinity RFID chip, which can be read by a reader within about a 10-metre range.

So far, Peratech has only integrated its chip into contactless RFID chips that send information over a much shorter distance – 10 centimetres. But the company is confident it will be able to adapt its technology.

Taysom said while the chip currently doesn’t implement “GEN2 style technology”, future versions will. “This implementation simply cuts the aerial and I think it can cut the aerial on a GEN2 card too,” Taysom says. “Taking this material and integrating it into a circuit is something we do every single day of the week.”

There should be a prototype program to develop such a card, he adds. That’s what GS1 Canada is working towards.

Eileen MacDonald, chief operating officer of GS1 Canada, also attended the Privacy by Design conference. Other privacy commissioners in Canada are also concerned that the vicinity RFID chips could be read by any card reader and permit surreptitious tracking of individuals, she says.

Eventually, the group hopes to develop multiple prototypes of the card that will give licence holders the option to activate or deactivate it. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security requirements for the new security measures come into effect June 1.

While tackling the problem on the technology front, Cavoukian is also looking to change the policies regarding the new requirements. With the new administration under President Barack Obama taking office, she hopes there will be an opportunity to address the issue. So far, she’s written to the Department of Homeland Security secretary, Janet Napolitano, to open a dialogue.

“At this point I just want to bring her into the picture,” the commissioner says. “I want to bring this issue to the attention of her and her staff.”

Ideally the on/off switch will be linked to the RFID chips on the final licences made available for Ontarians, and come turned off by default, she says.

The RFID chips will not broadcast any direct information about an individual even when they’re on, according to MacDonald. To help protect privacy, the chip broadcasts a unique string that can be used by border officials to match a person’s identity with a database.

Still, the string can be picked up by unauthorized card readers. Taysom demonstrated just how easy it was to pick up information from an RFID chip.

Using a laptop running Windows XP and a reader he purchased from Radioshack for $15, Taysom demonstrated how he could read his son’s U.K.-issued passport. Encoded in the string is a wealth of personal information including birth date and social security number.

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