I got my new passport in the mail. I’m pretty excited because I’m planning a trip to the UK in the fall. I also got back my old passport, which I had to submit as proof of ID. It happens that my old passport is almost exactly 20 years older than my new one. I held the pictures side by side and showed them to my wife. “Depressing,” I said. But it wasn’t really depressing, just interesting. Twenty years – POOF.
The new passport has the following warning on the last page:
This document contains sensitive
electronics. For best performance,
do not bend, perforate, or expose
to extreme temperatures.
For best performance? What exactly is it going to DO? They could have left off that phrase, and the imperative would have followed perfectly from the first sentence. More interesting than writing by committee, though, is that sensitive electronics part.
That little rectangular symbol means it's an "electronic" passport. Passports now contain your personal data encrypted on a chip. The chip is accessed using short-range radio waves—the same tech that’s common in credit cards, car keys, security fobs, and lots more. According to the State Department web site, the passport has a shielded cover, so it has to be opened and passed directly over a scanner to be read. I’m fine with this. It makes sense and seems secure enough.
But then there’s the passport card. This is offered as a cheaper and more convenient alternative for travelers who frequently go to and from Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Bermuda. It’s good only for land or sea travel—you can’t use it to fly. The card is wallet sized, and is billed as more convenient because it’s smaller and—get this—the data can be read at a distance. If you have a passport card in your wallet, the boarder guard will know who you are before you pull up to the gate. Really.
The government says not to worry, though – it’s secure because there’s no personal data on the card – just a number that they can link to your records in a “secure government databases.”
Let’s see, why doesn’t that make me feel better…Oh! I know; because THE GOVERNMENT IS WHO I’M AFRAID OF. If the passport card catches on as a national ID card (or is mandated), is there any doubt that the government will put readers in every government building, highway toll booth, bank, hospital, and anywhere else they can get away with? I don’t think I'm being too paranoid here. I mean, I would do it if I were them. It would be very handy in all sorts of situations.
But it is scary, in a delightfully sci-fi dystopia way. I refuse to get a passport card. I'm holding out for the really convenient subcutaneous passport implant.