Technology is a wonderful thing. It makes our lives easier and more convenient. A wealth of information is just a Google search away. Smartphone apps are totally personalized exactly how you like them. Merchants and service providers can give you what you want, based on your purchase history and your past behavior. And you can buy almost anything with the click of a button or the swipe of a piece of plastic. But all that convenience comes at a price — your privacy.

Radio-frequency identification (RFID) refers to systems that transmit certain identifying data wirelessly, using radio waves. That data might be the serial number of a piece of equipment. Or it might be your personal or financial information. It's stored on a so-called RFID tag, which is attached to or embedded in the object in question. In turn, a reader can retrieve the data from the tag using radio waves, so long as it is in close proximity to the tag. They don't need to touch, nor do they need line of sight. Different types of tags and readers are effective at varying distances.

We'll take a look at how RFID works, how it's used, what risks it poses, and countermeasures that you can take. And we'll take a look at various products you can utilize to help protect your privacy.

Technology Is Great

RFID is an immensely useful technology. There are many industrial and commercial applications for RFID, allowing companies to easily track and manage inventory, items, animals, and people. For example, manufacturers use RFID tags to track products through an assembly line. Distributors use them to effectively track inventory. Ranchers keep tabs on their cattle and sheep. Hospitals monitor inventory and workflow. Libraries replace bar codes with these tags. Even that access card you use to get into your office building or garage uses RFID.

There are many consumer applications as well. The device affixed to your windshield to let you zip through toll roads and bridges? The chip you had implanted in your Doberman, Fluffy? Your fancy new credit card that allows you to pay for those curly fries with the wave of a hand? That's all RFID technology. Many smartphones are incorporating RFID (referred to as near field communication or NFC for phones) to allow for wireless payment and data transmission. But did you know that your passport may have an RFID tag in it, containing your photograph as well as passport and personal data? Your driver's license might have an RFID chip too. With such personal and financial information encoded in those tags, this raises some very real security, privacy, and fraud concerns.

How Exactly Does It Work?

Tags generally are comprised of at least two parts — an integrated circuit, which is its brain, and an antenna for signal transmissions. There are three main types of RFID tags:

Active: Has an internal power source and may periodically transmit a signal. These are more expensive, but can operate at long ranges, function in difficult conditions, and even record additional data from sensors, such as temperature and humidity. Active tags are commonly seen in industrial and military applications.

Semi-Passive: Has a small battery that is activated when a reader is nearby and powers only the chip, not the antenna. While not as powerful as active tags, these are more sensitive than passive tags and can also perform active tasks such as logging sensor data.

Passive: Does not have any power source, relying on the signal from a reader to provide power. Passive tags are cheap to produce and very compact. They have more limited range, which can be considered a positive attribute from a security standpoint.

We are largely concerned with passive tags, such as those found on credit cards, passports, and driver's licenses.

If you see a symbol like the one shown below on your passport, it means yours is a biometric passport that is fitted with an RFID chip containing personally identifiable information that can be taken from you without your ever knowing.

If you see a symbol like the one shown below on your passport, it means yours is a biometric passport that is fitted...

Readers come in various shapes and sizes, and varying levels of strength. There are the typical point-of-sale terminals that you may have seen at your local fast food chain, intended to be used in close proximity and designed to be affordable and reliable for local businesses. But there are also high-powered readers that have greater range. Hacked and connected to a laptop or other custom circuitry, such a setup could potentially read your RFID tag from several feet away and you'd never know it.


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RFID systems are designed to work on various frequency bands, depending on the application and industry standards. Financial institutions, passports, and NFC mobile devices generally adhere to ISO/IEC 14443 standards, stipulating high-frequency systems at 13.56 MHz. There are systems that utilize low frequency as well as ultra high-frequency bands, but those are rare to find in the consumer applications that we are concerned with.

Risks

Carrying and using cards or IDs with RFID tags presents a few potential risks:

Skimming: Someone uses a reader to surreptitiously retrieve data from your RFID tag without your knowledge. For example, a criminal might hack a high-powered reader, place it in a briefcase, and run it off battery power. Then by passing by various folks, such as women carrying purses, the reader might pick up data from RFID-enabled credit cards. Later, the criminal loads the data into a computer and uses a blank magstripe card to make a cloned counterfeit credit card.

Eavesdropping: Someone intercepts data that is being legitimately transmitted from your RFID tag to a reader with your consent. This sort of eavesdropping may be possible at greater distances than skimming with specialized equipment, but location and timing is more constrained — since the criminal needs to be near an authorized reader being used for an actual legitimate transaction.

Tracking: Even legitimate use of RFID can leave a trail of data that you might not have thought about. For example, if you regularly use a wireless toll pass like an E-ZPass in your vehicle, have you considered all the information on your travels that it provides? Just two data points with position and time could be used to calculate your average speed, for example. New York state has rolled out a system in several areas that tracks the movement of cars with E-ZPass tags to estimate traffic patterns and travel times — they insist individual data is not stored or used for law enforcement purposes. Does that comfort you? And just imagine the implications for RFID tags that you carry on your person. Again, those are typically passive tags with limited range, but it's still frightening to consider.

Countermeasures

If you're reading this magazine, it means that you're already thinking ahead. You have the desire and commitment to take care of yourself and your loved ones. You know that making carefully considered and educated decisions is the way to go — and sometimes that means making the choice to compromise on some conveniences.

For instance, you could avoid potential RFID risks with credit cards by simply obtaining or requesting cards that do not have RFID tags in the first place. How important is it, really, to be able to wave your card at the register to pay for your Slurpee? Keep in mind, though, that you are always subject to good old-fashioned crime. Everything in life is a tradeoff, and one benefit of credit cards with RFID tags is that you needn't actually hand over your card to a cashier — when you do, an unscrupulous individual might steal your info. Fortunately, more and more stores utilize customer-facing terminals that you can swipe yourself.

But you may not have any choice in the matter. If you have a U.S. passport issued after August 2007, it contains an RFID tag with some personal data. Your state (in particular border states) might issue driver's licenses with an RFID chip. So you might not be able to opt-out. But there are a variety of products to help protect your privacy — most provide passive protection by shielding against transmissions while one actively jams them.

You can even make some of your own. While a little less user-friendly than the products in this article, an Altoids tin or several layers of aluminum foil can actually provide protection. Yes, that's right — insert your own tin foil joke here.altoids-tin

As mentioned earlier, the RFID chips that we're worried about use high-frequency bands, making them sensitive to metal and thus able to be shielded by the linings in the various products featured here. Low-frequency bands are more difficult to shield, but fortunately credit cards and the like don't use them. As an experiment, we tested our access badges at the office, which utilize low-frequency tags — all of the products reduced the effective range of the reader, but only a couple actually blocked it (the Access Denied wallet and the Alumawallet). Breaking out the aluminum foil, we had to completely wrap the badge in at least three layers of foil to prevent it from being read.

Finally, you could simply inflict some damage on the RFID chip in question to disable it. You could make surgical cuts with an X-Acto knife or use a hammer to perhaps be more discreet. And it's free (though irreversible). You may have read about using a microwave oven to destroy RFID chips — be wary with this approach as it may scorch or burn the item. However, before you break out your hammer, please do keep in mind that tampering with government documents is illegal. How often do you really need to break out your passport anyway? Surely you have some aluminum foil in the kitchen right now…

RFID Identity Theft Countermeaures - RFID Jammer

  • Armourcard

    Make & Model - Armourcard
    Dimensions - 3.4 x 2.1 x 0.1 in
    MSRP - $50
    URL - http://www.armourcard.com
    Notes - Unlike the other products in this guide, which offer passive shielding protection, the Armourcard is an active countermeasure. Credit card-sized, you place it in your wallet amongst your other cards. It stays in standby mode until it detects an RFID or NFC reader, then it will jam the high-frequency RFID signals. The Armourcard can be temporarily deactivated to allow you to use a contactless credit card — or simply pull out the card and keep the Armourcard away from the reader. One item to note is that the device uses an internal battery that cannot be replaced, so once it is depleted you will need to purchase a new Armourcard. This is quite unfortunate; the manufacturer explained that they use a special battery and design to keep the device as slim as possible. The battery is expected to last at least 18 to 24 months.

    The Armourcard is an active countermeasure, you place it in your wallet amongst your other cards, and it stays in standby mode until it detects an RFID or NFC reader, then it will jam the high-frequency signals.

RFID Identity Theft Countermeaures - Sleeves

  • Conair Travel Smart RFID Blocking Credit Card Sleeve

    Make & Model - Conair Travel Smart RFID Blocking Credit Card Sleeve
    Dimensions - 3.625 x 2.5 x 0.125 in
    Weight - 0.2 oz
    Colorway - Silver
    MSRP - $4
    URL - http://www.conair.com
    Notes - The padded sleeve is advertised to accommodate up to three credit cards, but we were able to shoehorn four into it.

    The Conair Travel Smart RFID Blocking Credit Card Sleeve is advertised to accommodate up to three credit cards, but we were able to shoehorn four into it.

  • Conair Travel Smart RFID Blocking Passport Sleeve

    Make & Model - Conair Travel Smart RFID Blocking Passport Sleeve
    Dimensions - 5.25 x 4.125 x 0.125 in
    Weight - 0.8 oz
    Colorway - Silver
    MSRP - $6
    URL - http://www.conair.com
    Notes - The padded sleeve holds one passport. We were able to force a second in, but we wouldn't recommend it.

    The Conair Travel Smart Passport Sleeve fits in one passport to protect it from RFID reading.

  • REI RFID Credit Card Sleeves

    Make & Model - REI RFID Credit Card Sleeves
    Dimensions - 3.375 x 2.25 in
    Weight - n/a
    Colorway - Assorted
    MSRP - $7
    URL - http://www.rei.com
    Notes - It doesn't get much simpler than this laminated foil sleeve, which holds one credit card (two in a pinch). The package comes with a set of three sleeves in different colors.

    It doesn't get much simpler than this REI RFID Credit Card Sleeve, a laminated foil sleeve, which holds one credit card (two in a pinch).

  • REI RFID Passport Sleeve

    Make & Model - REI RFID Passport Sleeve
    Dimensions - 5.5 x 3.8 in
    Weight - 0.1 oz
    Colorway - Green
    MSRP - $7
    URL - http://www.rei.com
    Notes - A larger laminated foil sleeve, designed to hold one passport.

    The REI RFID Passport Sleeve is a larger laminated foil sleeve, designed to hold and protect one passport.

RFID Identity Theft Countermeaures - Wallets

  • Access Denied Men's Bi-Fold Wallet

    Make & Model - Access Denied Men's Bi-Fold Wallet
    Dimensions - 4.5 x 3.625 x 0.5 in (closed)
    Weight - 2 oz
    Colorway - Black, Black/Tan, Cocoa Brown, Dark Chocolate Brown, Saddle Tan, Tan
    MSRP - $55 to 60
    URL - http://www.rfiddenied.com
    Notes - This looks like a standard leather wallet, but Access Denied has added lining throughout advertised to meet Federal FIPS-201 security standards in shielding RFID transmissions. It has two full-length currency pockets, six credit card pockets, two slip pockets, and a flip-up ID window.

    his looks like a standard leather wallet, but Access Denied has added lining throughout advertised to meet Federal FIPS-201 security standards in shielding RFID transmissions.

  • AlumaWallet

    Make & Model - AlumaWallet
    Dimensions - 4.25 x 2.875 x 0.75 in (closed)
    Weight - 2.7 oz
    Colorway - Black, Blue, Red, Silver, Leopard, Zebra
    MSRP - $11
    URL - http://www.alumawallet.com
    Notes - Made of aluminum and plastic, the AlumaWallet provides more protection than a typical wallet with its water- and crush-resistant hard shell. But it feels like having a chunky old Blackberry in your pocket. Pop the plastic latch and it opens like a clamshell, to reveal a fan-fold accordion organizer.

    The AlumaWallet is made of aluminum and plastic and provides more protection than a regular wallet as it is water- and crush-resistant.

  • Dopp RFID Black Ops Front Pocket Slimfold Wallet

    Make & Model - Dopp RFID Black Ops Front Pocket Slimfold Wallet
    Dimensions - 4.25 x 3 x 0.375 in (closed)
    Weight - 1 oz
    Colorway - Black
    MSRP - $30
    URL - http://www.buxton.co
    Notes - This offering from Dopp is very slim, compact, and discreet. It has a single full-length currency pocket, two credit card pockets, and two slip pockets (one with a clear ID window and thumb hole). The interior features a complementary accent color as well as a perforated pocket that shows off the metallic lining. We're not kidding when we say it's slim so if you carry a ton of cards, this one's not for you.

    This RFID Black Ops Front Pocket Slimfold Waller from Dopp is very slim, compact, and discreet, all the while protecting you from identity theft.

  • Dynex Passport Security Wallet

    Make & Model - Dynex Passport Security Wallet
    Dimensions - 5.5 x 5 x 0.625 in (closed)
    Weight - 2.4 oz
    Colorway - Black
    MSRP - $5
    URL - http://www.dynexproducts.com
    Notes - Dynex's security wallet is reminiscent of a fanny pack — quite versatile and just as attractive. Its trifold construction features a zippered currency pocket, passport pocket, clear ID pocket, zippered mesh pocket, and four credit card pockets. It secures with a Velcro flap and has a neck strap (not removable) as well as a belt slide. Shielding is on the exterior of the wallet. Did we mention it's ugly? But it's dirt cheap as well.

    Dynex's passport security wallet is reminiscent of a fanny pack — quite versatile and just as attractive.

  • Pacsafe RFIDsafe 50 Anti-Theft RFID Passport Protector

    Make & Model - Pacsafe RFIDsafe 50 Anti-Theft RFID Passport Protector
    Dimensions - 6.8 x 4.125 x 0.25 in (closed)
    Weight - 0.8 oz
    Colorway - Black, gray
    MSRP - $20
    URL - http://www.pacsafe.com
    Notes - A simple pouch made of shielded 50D chess weave dobby with a Velcro closure.

    The Pacsafe RFIDsafe 50 Anti-Theft RFID Passport Protector is a simple pouch made of shielded 50D chess weave dobby with a Velcro closure.

  • Pacsafe RFIDtec 250 Anti-Theft RFID Travel Wallet

    Make & Model - Pacsafe RFIDtec 250 Anti-Theft RFID Travel Wallet
    Dimensions - 7.5 x 4.5 x 1 in (closed)
    Weight - 3.6 oz
    Colorway - Black, Cool steel, Ocean blue, Shadow
    MSRP - $50
    URL - http://www.pacsafe.com
    Notes - Made of nylon 210D dobby and shielded on the exterior, the Pacsafe is a large wallet with a contrasting interior and a snap closure with elastic strap. It is chock full of storage with two full-length pockets for currency or passports, eight credit card pockets, another full length pocket with clear window, a zippered pocket and an outer zippered pocket.

    Made of nylon 210D dobby and shielded on the exterior, the Pacsafe is a large wallet with a contrasting interior and a snap closure with elastic strap.

  • Travelon Safe ID Ladies Wallet

    Make & Model - Travelon Safe ID Ladies Wallet
    Dimensions - 7.5 x 3.875 x 0.625 in (closed)
    Weight - 2.5 oz
    Colorway - Black, Brown, Navy, Olive, Pewter, Teal
    MSRP - $20
    URL - http://www.travelonbags.com
    Notes - This zippered nylon wallet is shielded on the exterior and comes in a variety of colors. It sports two full-length currency pockets, eight credit card pockets, a clear ID pocket, and a zippered change pocket. The brightly colored interior makes it easy to locate your items.

    This zippered nylon wallet is shielded on the exterior, comes in a variety of colors, and protects you from identity theft!

RFID Identity Theft Countermeaures - Travel Accessories

  • Lewis N Clark RFID Neck Stash

    Make & Model - Lewis N Clark RFID Neck Stash
    Dimensions - 7.75 x 5.5 x 0.375 in
    Weight - 1.5 oz
    Colorway - Black, Tan
    MSRP - $15
    URL - http://www.lcibrands.com
    Notes - This neck stash has an adjustable strap and Velcro closure on a full-sized pocket with mesh divider. It has two additional full-size zippered pockets and a clear ID pocket. All pockets are enclosed by the shielded exterior.

    This Lewis N Clark RFID neck stash has an adjustable strap and Velcro closure on a full-sized pocket with mesh divider.

  • REI RFID Clip Stash

    Make & Model - REI RFID Clip Stash
    Dimensions - 4.625 x 3.25 x 0.125 in
    Weight - 0.7 oz
    Colorway - Gray
    MSRP - $12
    URL - http://www.rei.com
    Notes - Made of water-repellent ripstop nylon with a foil lining, the clip stash has a single zippered pocket and a bit of padding on the backside. A small loop is handy with the included carabiner to either clip inside a larger bag or to a belt loop for more secure pocket carry.

    Made of water-repellent ripstop nylon with a foil lining, the REI clip stash has a single zippered pocket and a bit of padding on the backside, and is still enough to protect you from identity theft.

RFID Identity Theft Countermeaures - Bags

  • Pacsafe Citysafe 200 Anti-Theft Travel Handbag

    Make & Model - Pacsafe Citysafe 200 Anti-Theft Travel Handbag
    Dimensions - 14.6 x 9.4 x 3.9 in
    Weight - 1.1 lb
    Colorway - Black, Crimson red, Midnight blue, Plum, Walnut
    MSRP - $85
    URL - http://www.pacsafe.com
    Notes - Prada has nothing to fear from Pacsafe, but this is an eminently practical handbag. It has Pacsafe's trademark security features — slash-proof stainless steel mesh in the exterior and shoulder strap, plus easily secured zippers and straps. It also features an RFID shielded pocket inside the main compartment, which will hold a passport with room to spare — note that the entire purse is not shielded, just the specific pocket. The bag has a zippered outer pocket and zippered main compartment, with an inner zippered pocket, electronics pocket, and several other smaller pockets.

    The Citysafe 200 Anti-Theft Travel Handbag has Pacsafe's trademark security features — slash-proof stainless steel mesh in the exterior and shoulder strap, plus easily secured zippers and straps.

  • Pacsafe Venturesafe 25L Anti-Theft Travel Pack

    Make & Model - Pacsafe Venturesafe 25L Anti-Theft Travel Pack
    Dimensions - 19.7 x 11.4 x 7.9 in
    Weight - 1.6 lbs
    Colorway - Black, Navy blue, Ocean blue, Storm gray
    MSRP - $135
    URL - http://www.pacsafe.com
    Notes - This 25-liter backpack has all the features that Pacsafe is known for, including body panels and straps with embedded stainless steel wires and mesh that prevent thieves from cutting them as well as various other security features to secure zippers and straps. There is an RFID shielded pocket inside the front compartment, a little larger than a passport — note that the entire backpack is not shielded, only the specific pocket. Beyond that, it is a fully featured backpack, with everything from an internal padded laptop sleeve to sternum and waist straps to molded foam back support. There is one main compartment, a front compartment, and two side stretch pockets.

    This 25-liter backpack has all the features that Pacsafe is known for, including body panels and straps with embedded stainless steel wires and mesh that prevent thieves from cutting them as well as various other security features.


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