More and more countries around the world are now issuing passports that contain RFID chips. Chances are, if you carry a passport issued within the last 3 years from the United States, a European Union member, or one of 50-plus other countries, your passport has a tiny chip in the cover that contains information about you. These RFID chips are designed to be scanned wirelessly to prevent fraud; but what data about you exactly is stored on your passport RFID chip?
What Is RFID?
RFID stands for “radio-frequency identification” which makes sense when you think of its most common uses outside of passports. Those of your traveling with pets, who’ve been good owners and followed all the rules, should be familiar with the identification microchip, usually placed on your animal’s neck. RFID tags are also placed on inventory so companies can better track them in warehouses. The technology is becoming more widespread basically anywhere one would want to track things over wireless, cheaply.
RFID comes in three forms (passports use passive reader active tags in case you were wondering) but basically it’s a short range technology, meaning it’s not designed to transmit or be read over long distances. The RFID chips in a passport are activated by a special type of reader that gives them enough energy to dump their contents. Most of the controversy about biometric passports revolves around what information is on them and how far away their contents can actually be read.
What’s On Most Passport RFID Chips
This varies from country to country since the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), which sets world passport standards, hasn’t specified what data should (or shouldn’t) be on RFID chips. For American citizens, there is no personal information stored on the RFID tag, simply a reference code to a file the government keeps on you and agents can access at passport control. Most other countries store data directly on the chip itself. For Europeans this typically means all of the information about you inside of the passport (e.g. name, date of birth, etc.) plus your photo and fingerprints.
Again, it depends. The best place to find out what is on your passport RFID chip is to consult the government body that issues passports in your country. Also, it’s important to note that this data is almost always encrypted; though it’s shoddy.
What concerns privacy advocates is that the data from passport RFID chips can be read from a distance (wirelessly) with someone with the right equipment and knowledge. So, although most governments claim the data is only readable from 10 centimeters away (~4 inches), computer security experts have been able to get at them from 160 meters (~525 feet).
How To Tell If Your Passport Uses RFID And Protect Your Information
The aforementioned ICAO does have a few requirements for biometric passports and one is that they display the logo (shown right) on the front cover. If you see that symbol on your passport, it’s got an RFID chip in it (usually somewhere along the interior back cover). And although they can be read with relative ease, you can protect yourself with even less effort. American passports are already shielded with a thin coat of metal on the cover, so RFID chips can only be read when the passport is open. Everyone else, an RFID shielding wallet is a simple fix, plus safer than a hammer or microwaving your passport.