Privacy advocates have voiced concern for months over the prospect of an RFID chip broadcasting personal information from new enhanced driver’s licences. With these licences set to roll out in June, Saskatchewan says they’re cancelling their program and Ontario is looking for a way to turn the licence off.

Saskatchewan cancels RFID licences while Ontario looks for off-switch

While Ontario’s Privacy Commissioner is seeking to include an off-switch on the enhanced driver’s licence (EDL) being rolled out in June, Saskatchewan has opted to scrap their project completely.

The EDL is being deployed by many provinces as a response to stricter border crossing standards imposed by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative starts June 1, any driver entering the U.S. from Canada will need to show either a passport, or an EDL to establish their nationality.

Privacy advocates across Canada have expressed grave concerns over the new licences because they include a GEN2 RFID chip that can be read within a vicinity of about 30 feet. The idea is to let border guards know who is approaching ahead of time. But the card also broadcasts information at other times and anyone with a RFID (radio frequency identification) reader could pick it up.

Saskatchewan announced Monday it is halting its EDL program. A number of factors were cited and privacy was among them. Public interest in making use the card was also an issue. 

“Privacy may have afforded the government the opportunity to pause and reconsider the whole project,” says Gary Dickson, Saskatchewan’s Privacy Commissioner.

Ontario Privacy Commissioner Ann Cavoukian is working on a solution to the problem posed by the card’s RFID technology. She wants an off-switch on the licence so people can control when their information is being sent out. Before, it wasn’t clear whether a switch was possible on this particular RFID chip, but now a company has come forward saying they’re ready to mass produce it.

“The beauty of this technology is that the default is the RFID is off. That’s what we loved about it,” she says. “We think it’s very promising and we’re trying to get moving and exploit the interest in it.”

Seattle-based RFID chip manufacturer Impinj Inc. has demonstrated a prototype vicinity RFID card with a switch.

The design activates the RFID chip when someone places their finger on the corner of the card.

A mechanical switch – with moving parts – would be too frail, says Kerry Krause, vice-president of marketing at Impinj. So they took a different approach.

“With our technology, all you have to do is touch it,” he says. “The tag is only readable when a person is holding the driver’s licence and pinching it in the right spot. Your fingers are completing a circuit and turning it on.”

Previously, Cavoukian had been looking at a U.K.-based Peratech Ltd. But the company’s technology was made for contactless RFID chips, not vicinity RFID chips. They had not produced a working prototype that satisfied Homeland Security requirements.

Impinj has satisfied those requirements by producing a card readable within about a 10-meter radius, Cavoukian says. Plus, they are an American company, and that can’t hurt.

It is too late to include an off-switch on the first generation of EDLs in Ontario. Manufacturer Giesecke & Devrient will need to start producing the cards soon to have them ready in time for June. Instead, the cards will come with a sheath that will hamper the signal. The card will be too thick to fit in your wallet slot while in its sheath.

Using an RFID reader, someone could read a unique string of characters broadcast by the card. But they’d need access to the right database to retrieve any personal information with the number. But privacy advocates say the string alone is enough to track an individual’s movements.

“Even if someone can’t penetrate the database kept by the Canadian Border Service, it still means that every time the card is not in the sleeve, there’s a risk that it could be associated with a designated individual,” Dickson explains.

But the hope is that the off-switch could eventually be included on the next run of EDLs.

“If you have a solution that works in the field, then the next generation of EDLs could be produced with a switch,” Cavoukian says.

The cards are ready to be manufactured, Impinj says. The company has plans to follow up with the Ontario government and move forward with the project.

“We have every intention of bringing this to market if it meets the needs,” Krause says. “We can move pretty quickly to support them, we’ll just jump into a traditional product development cycle here.”

Other provinces have since contacted Impinj about the possibility of using its technology on their own EDLs, he adds.  

Saskatchewan residents will still be able to use a passport to cross the border. Ontario residents have the option to get an EDL or not, and can also use a passport to cross the border.

“If you decide to get an EDL, make sure you’re aware of the privacy and security concerns,” Cavoukian says. “If you do get one, use the protective sleeve until we can offer you a new solution.”

Cavoukian plans to meet Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano in June to discuss the off-switch.

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