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"How Orwellian can you get?" - RFID for air travellers

Natasha Lomas / Silicon.com | October 18 2006

A plan to tag air travellers with RFID chips to improve airport security by monitoring passengers as they kill time after check-in in airport coffee shops and departure lounges has been slammed by silicon.com readers as "another ill thought out idea", "a solution looking for a problem" and even "dead in the water".

Electrical engineers working on University College London's 'Optag' project have designed a prototype RFID tag with a much greater range than a standard RFID chip - up to 20 metres. The new tags are to be trialled at an airport in Hungary next month and, if successful, could be rolled out to airports within two years, according to project lead Dr Paul Brennan.

But a smooth rollout is unlikely, judging by the overwhelmingly negative reaction of silicon.com readers - many of whom cast doubt on the effectiveness of the tagging technology as a security measure.

Simon, a reader from Cumbria, said: "So we'll have tags that are either intrusive and hard to remove (the "You are all criminals until you prove otherwise" approach), or will be easily removed by anyone wanting to subvert the system (like, err, terrorists?)."

He added: "And the tags WILL be easy to remove, after all, there will need to be loads of staff able to remove them at the boarding gates, so the tools/techniques will not be hard to come by for those that require them."

Another reader, an IT consultant from London, suggests the technology might actually be detrimental to airport security: "If they implement this and everyone gets used to using it then anyone untagged becomes invisible and is even more of a threat... Plus, if the legitimacy of your owning the device is never human-checked then security is reduced."

Reader AS Mills, from London, also has concerns about the tags' effectiveness, dubbing the project "dead in the water": "As a security 'deterrent' any device such as this RFID tag which can be removed by the wearer and switched to another person is totally useless for 'real' (ie terrorist or a released-on-remand prisoner) security purposes."

Mills added: "This is just yet another technology company trying to make a quick buck from taxpayers for a useless product!"

Director Nick Cole, from Scotland, agrees. "What another waste of time," he said. "RFID [is] a solution looking for a problem to solve... How will it track those who aren't wearing them or those who have 'borrowed' one from someone else?"

But other readers felt moved to offer more constructive criticism. "Why not use the new passports?" suggested one reader from Sheffield. "I've just got my new one and it has a biometric chip and a radio antenna - surely this could be used and people are always going to have a passport on them at the airport."

Meanwhile programme manager Roy Corneloues, who hails from "Eng-er-land!!!" and calls himself "an optimist!!!", suggests the tag should be built into the boarding card. "This will have a number of advantages over and above a person's location," he said. "For example, you should simply be able to walk up to a gate and board the plane if your tag is recognised. If not alarm bells sound [and] you are refused to travel any further, or for purchase of duty free."

And the mail bag of controversy would not be complete without a sprinkling of civil liberties fears. A reader from London said: "Why stop at airports? Let's tag everyone in the country starting with Dr Paul Brennan. Or better still, make it a global project.

"The problem I see is that it will be introduced no matter what the human right issues are... The other question we have to ask is, does it really increase security or is it just another step to passively monitoring people and accumulating information?"

A reader from the US also chipped in with a 'Big Brother' warning, saying simply: "How Orwellian can you get?"

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