MAR
06
2004
Your U. S. Currency Is Not Microwave Safe For Democracy

I was reading Slashdot and I noticed a story about the new RFID chip they're putting into all the new currency these days. (Slashdot is really a great site for looking at the nitty gritty concerning government programs–they've been covering government-sponsored scams like the Diebold voting machine and TIA for a long time now.)

To summarize, your new U. S. currency has a mircochip-type device in it. Slashdot links to someone who discovered this by setting off a metal detector becuase he had an unusually large amount of twenties on him. So, later, this guy microwaved a stack of $20 bills, and lo and behold, the right eye of Andrew Jackson had exploded. At least the Bureau of Engraving has a sense of humor. The best part is that if you wrap your cash in aluminum foil, it won't set off the metal detectors. (Will aluminum-lined hats will be all the rage in the not-too-distant future?)

Now, I'm not paranoid about RFID chips in and of themselves, but people often forget how often they are being tracked in today's society. Security cameras everywhere, the Metrocard you swipe to get into the subway, your charge record on your credit card, the ID tag you scan to get into work, your browser's history file, and so forth.

A quick note about Metrocards: In the 1990's, New York's Metropolitan Transit Authority introduced the Metrocard, a flexible plastic pass with a magnetic strip, to replace the old subway token (they just killed the token for good a few months ago). When I was in high school, they introduced a plan to replace the old transit passes we used to have with a special student Metrocard. We protested on several grounds, but one of the issues was that we were sure the Metrocards would be used to track us. In the case of high school students, it would be possible to flag any Metrocards used during school hours and turn the owners of those cards over to the Truancy Patrol (ask me about them next time you see me, I have a funny story about them). The administration swore up and down that they would not be used for this purpose (I believe this was around 1995). Nowadays it's taken for granted that your Metrocard can be used to track you in a criminal case. I don't know about the Truancy Patrol (truancy is handled separately from the rest of the police work in New York City), but I can imagine some future mayor will figure it out eventually.

And why not? It's so easy to do! The truth about these devices is that tracking people is incredibly useful, sometimes even for the person being tracked. There's all this public data out there to be sifted.

So, the question becomes, why did they start putting RFID's in Andrew Jackson's head? Are we going to start tracking currency everywhere? Why, to stop the terrorists?

The thing about increasing security measures is that increasing them doesn't stop terrorism, just certain terrorists. Security is always an ongoing battle between the authorities and those intent on thwarting them. Security policy, if it's worthwhile, has to evolve and adapt as fast as those it wishes to protect against.

Take this force and pit it against the traditional enemy of security–convenience. Security is always a hassle, necessarily. The most secure way to keep contraband out of somewhere is to do a full-cavity search on each person entering that place. We don't do it because it isn't practical.

More sophisticated security technology tries to bridge the gap between security and convenience by using trust. Take the passport system, for example. People generally accept passports as ID because they're difficult (read: expensive) to forge. When you accept a passport, you're trusting the issuing government's security technology instead of making the person prove their identity all over again. Problem is, the more trusted a technology is, the easier it is to use forged documents (if not to forge them, which is a wholly separate matter).

So, take all this tracking technology. Are we moving towards that single ID chip implanted in our forehead that gets scanned everywhere? And when we do, how long will it take until somebody figures out how to forge or modify those chips? That person will have the keys to every castle.




 

 
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