Privacy Commissioner wants off switch on new Ontario driver licenses

Ontario’s Privacy Commissioner wants to give Ontarians the ability to turn off the RFID function on their new enhanced driver’s licences.

More specifically, Commissioner Ann Cavoukian wants a simple switch added to the RFID chip in the enhanced driver’s licence (EDL) that will soon be coming to Ontario. The new cards aim to meet new U.S. Homeland Security requirements that come into effect June 1, transmitting a unique number to border officials while drivers wait in line at the crossing.

The Ontario government passed the bill approving the EDL on Nov. 18. But now Cavoukian wants to revisit that legislation because of privacy concerns.

“The problem is that you’ll be carrying these every day,” she says. “The risk is that a lot of private information might be broadcast to readers that could receive the information.”

RFID chip security has proved to be less than foolproof in the past and known to fall prey to hackers, she adds.

The ability for Ontarians to turn off the RFID function on their cards is a logical precaution.

Ontarians will have the option to use the RFID licenses or not. The cost of the license will be $40 in addition to the $75 cost of a regular driver’s license.

Currently the U.S. requires that GEN2 vicinity RFID chips be used in the new licences. That type of chip can be read at 30 feet away with the right reader, and would speed up the border crossing process as officials would know who was approaching the border.

But Cavoukian plans to lobby U.S. Homeland Security to change that stipulation to a different method that will easily allow an on/off switch to be added. She plans to open up talks when the new administration takes power Jan. 20.

The GEN2 RFID chip standard was created by the non-profit global association GS1. Also the inventors of the barcode, the worldwide association plays a key role in creating inventory identification standards and its maintenance.

Officials from GS1 Canada downplayed the privacy concerns involved with the chip, saying these were due to public misperceptions about the technology.

“There’s a lack of information and understanding, and a general resistance to the new technology,” says Eileen MacDonald, chief operations officer of GS1 Canada. “If I have it in my wallet at the grocery store, is there a way that someone can read it? Right now, the answer is no.”

That encryption is good enough protection, MacDonald says. But GS1 Canada is working with the Privacy Commissioner’s office to find a solution because there is a consumer perception of a threat to privacy.

If someone using the technology isn’t confident about their privacy, they want the option to turn it off, she says.

By contrast, Cavoukian insists the threat to privacy is real, not just perceived. Even if the transmitted data is a string that must be matched with a database – that string is still valuable information to have about an individual, similar to a Social Insurance Number.

“People could get that number and find out a lot of information about you,” Cavoukian says. “(GS1) minimized the threat. I’m sorry to hear that.”

Still, the Commissioner and GS1 are working together to find a solution to include an on/off switch on the RFID chip. GS1 will talk about their progress on the project at the Jan. 28 Privacy By Design conference.

Co-hosted by the Ontario Privacy Commissioner and the Toronto Board of Trade, the conference features presentations by large tech companies such as Microsoft, Intel and HP about efforts to create technology that is built with privacy in mind.

GS1 has been searching for a switch that could be adapted for the new licence.

Specimens were looked at from several different companies and research institutions, but the best one found was at U.K.-based company Peratech. The company has developed a technology dubbed Quantum Tunneling that requires a person press a point on the card to activate the RFID chip. The method also prevents accidental activation if the chip rubs up against the side of a wallet.

But the switch is designed for a different standard of RFID chip. The contactless type of chip is designed to be read within centimeters of a reader, not a wide area like vicinity chips.

It may not be possible to use that technology on the chips for Ontario’s new licences, says John Keogh, chief privacy officer at EPCglobal Canada, a subsidiary of GS1.

“We haven’t seen one yet that works with the GEN2 standard,” he says. “There’s still a significant amount of proto-typing and testing that still needs to be done.”

But creating the on/off switch for the vicinity RFID chip is possible and has in fact already been done, according to Dylan Persaud, research manager of enterprise applications at analyst firm IDC Canada in Toronto.

“It is possible to do it and there are ways to scramble the signal,” he says.

Persaud couldn’t disclose the company using the chips, but said it was a client of his that used them for inventory tracking purposes.

The RFID chip isn’t the only privacy concern raised by the new licenses. Critics are concerned with how the data will be stored at the border, and who gets to see it. Some small Web-based protests have cropped up around the issue.

A Facebook group, “Ontarians Concerned With ‘Enhanced Drivers Licenses” has 218 members so far. An online petition has garnered more than 58 names.

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