I Really Don't Want to be Followed

Publication Date: 2011-09-11

It's not that I'm paranoid; it's that I don't like people following me.

My work on the TravelInBC.com site includes writing little articles for the 2010 Winter Olympics page (2010 Olympic Articles). I use an alert system provided by a famous search engine to let me know when news breaks so that I can distil interesting travel notes for the site.

This one article from the Globe and Mail came up and made me twitch. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/LAC.20070817.BCBORDER17/TPStory/National

The USA's efforts to defeat terrorism through massive bureaucracy have required passports for border crossings. This has made it just that much harder for the British Columbia families to enjoy cross border shopping and has had the effect of deterring Americans from becoming tourists to Canada.

According to The Globe, British Columbia and Washington State are wanting to reduce the border crossing problems by going back to the way is used to be: the ubiquitous driver's license. However, there's a catch. According to The Globe:

     The [drivers'] licences will have computer chips with radio
     transmitters that will broadcast an identification number linked to a
     computer database, allowing border officials to flag anyone who should
     not be allowed across the border, although officials say that the
     licences will not link directly to personal data.

This makes no sense at a couple of levels. An RFID chip in your licence will tell anyone (who knows how to pick up the frequency) to find you. The frequency of the chip in your wallet will have to be linked to a database somewhere or it will be useless. Imagine approaching the border and you are flagged for questioning. You are on a bus with 43 other people. How are customs agents going to ask for you? They are going to know you are coming, look up your name and then ask for you when you are at the border. I doubt the new drivers' licences are going to ping or vibrate or something to let you know that customs wants to talk to you. Customs officers will have to find you in the crowd.

It's beyond belief that more hubbub has not been raised. Once everyone has an RFID chip in their license, don't you think that other agencies (like the IRS and CCRA) are not going to want to use this now and then to track you down? Most adults who have licences, which is most of us, carry them whenever clothed.

And who maintains the database? It's not that I don't trust IT people. I don't trust people who have influence over IT people ... like supermodels and people with money and guns. Misuse of databases does happen. Check this one out from Guardian Unlimited: http://www.guardian.co.uk/worldlatest/story/0,,-6865764,00.html

This database - called TALON - was keeping data on peaceful protestors when it was supposed to be keeping information on threats to military establishments. The database wasn't being used correctly, so it's being shut down, but the archive version is being kept "in accordance with intelligence oversight requirements." If that doesn't send a shiver down your spine ...

So do you want an RFID chip in your driver's licence? Even if I could request to be shown the process by which the data is handled on both the US and Canadian sides, and even if there were serious penalties for misuse of the data that will be captured by computers monitoring the chips, I still wouldn't want it.

This whole way of trying to capture terrorists is nuts. I would guess that 99.97% of people holding valid drivers licenses are not terrorists or even criminals (as long as you exclude parking and speeding tickets). Let's say you can't find something in your house. Does it make sense to tag everything you can find in your house with an RFID chip in the hopes that the thing that's hidden shows up?

There has got to be a better way.

Robert Ford is a Vancouver entrepreneur who is considering just giving up and stapling his passport to his head. Robert@quokkasystems.com
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