Ontario’s new RFID driver’s licence still has privacy flaws, commissioner says

The enhanced driver’s licences being made available in Ontario June 1 still aren’t up to snuff when it comes to protecting personal privacy, says Ontario’s Information and Privacy Commissioner in her annual report.

Ann Cavoukian has been working towards adding an off-switch to the enhanced licenses. It won’t be on the first batch of licences, but she hasn’t given up hope.

The new licences offer drivers an alternative to a passport when crossing the border into the U.S. and use a RFID chip that transmits a unique code that can be read from 30 feet away.

The licence is designed to meet the Department of Homeland Security’s requirement that proof of citizenship must be shown when entering the U.S., while avoiding long waiting lines. Getting an enhanced driver’s license is optional, and $40 more expensive than your typical licence.

The RFID chip in the licences meets the UHF GEN2 standards defined by GS1, a global standards organization. It doesn’t transmit personal information directly, but could be used to covertly track an individual, or even as an identity theft mechanism, Cavoukian says.

“Its frequencies are transmitted to authorized or unauthorized readers alike,” she says. “When you’re driving around the province, you have to assume that anything picking that up is unauthorized , because [it’s] not intended to have that stuff.”

The commissioner’s office has been looking for a RFID manufacturer that could add an on/off switch to the enhanced licenses. Now it’s about to witness the first prototype of such a device, as made by Seattle-based Impinj Inc.

The demonstration will occur May 26, and Cavoukian plans to highlight the experience when she meets with U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano in the first week of June.

“I want to excite them about the technology, as much as I’m excited about it,” she says. “I want to present the scenario to them as a privacy-protective and secure tool that offers the benefits of RFID technology they envisioned, plus the benefits I’d like to see for privacy.”

The prototype will use Impinj’s patented TouchTAG technology. The licence holder merely turns the card “on” by pressing their finger on to the corner. This completes a circuit and allows the RFID chip to transmit its information until the circuit is broken (your finger removed).

Don’t worry, it won’t turn on by accident when it’s in your wallet, says Kerry Krause, the vice-president of marketing at Impinj.

“With our technology, all you have to do is touch it. It’s not mechanical, it’s electrical,” he says. “It’s an elegant way to address the problem.”  

Impinj has had meetings with Ontario’s Ministry of Transportation and has also been contacted by other provinces about the technology, he adds.

Saskatchewan cancelled its enhanced drivers licenses program in March, partially due to privacy concerns. The logistics and cost of the program were also listed as problems.

Cavoukian says the unique string transmitted by the license would be enough for an individual to be covertly tracked, and at risk of identity theft. Each card has its own unique number used to associate an individual with a database accessible by U.S. border guards.

“This is a unique personal identifier – it is one number that is linked to you, so it’s like a unique signature,” she says. “That means that somebody could be tracked from here to there.”

If the data provided by the enhanced license is cross-referenced with other personal information, there is an even greater risk, she says. An effort must be made to minimize the amount of information that can be collected and linked back to an individual.

Privacy violation claims over vicinity RFID chips have been described as “a myth” by GS1 Canada.

The non-profit organization says the chip is akin to a talking barcode, a number without any personal identifiers. Much like a licence plate, it is meaningless without the right database to reference the personal information.

“A lot of misinformation is out there in the market … there’s a lack of understanding about this technology,” Eileen MacDonald, chief operations officer of GS1 Canada, told ITBusiness.ca in a previous interview. “There’s a general resistance to new technology.”

The Department of Homeland Security also may not have privacy concerns around the new licences on its radar screen, Cavoukian allows. But she hopes to put it there.

The Ministry of Transportation and Service Ontario, the producers of the new card, are on board with the on/off switch. They’ve had several meetings with Cavoukian and Impinj regarding the technology.

“As soon as there’s a working prototype, we’ll be able to ratchet this up and move it to the next stage,” she says.

The next version of Ontario’s enhanced drivers license could contain the switch, perhaps within a year, Cavoukian says.

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  • Guest

    They sell RFID readers/writers on EBAY, if your unfamiliar with building electronics. Encryption for these devices has been re-tooled and cracked numerous times. Even if they have no information other than a unique identification number that still leaves them open to spoofing. Any device that transmits a radio signal, can be read by anyone close enough to pick up the signal, if u call that secure i have a bridge in Brooklyn im selling cheap.