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Microchips in our passports and credit cards: Are they safe?

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istockphoto.com
Published June 20, 2014

The Sacramento Bee

Tiny plastic chips embedded in passports and, increasingly, in credit cards are primarily designed to thwart fraud and counterfeiting. But they also make credit card users and travelers uneasy about the potential for someone with prying eyes to try to steal their personal data.

How real is the threat?

The chip technology for passports and credit cards is different.

With credit cards, the tiny chip contains encrypted data activated only when the card is inserted into a designated "smartcard" reader. So fears of having someone "skim" a credit card chip are largely unwarranted, security officials say.

Passports use a different technology, Radio Frequency Identification. When embedded in a U.S. passport, the chip can be scanned only by an RFID reader, usually within a couple feet.

"Yes, someone nearby could read what's in your wallet," said G. Mark Hardy, president of National Security Corp., who uses a wallet that blocks RFID signals. But, he said, "it's less likely to happen, at this point in time, because it's so much easier to do fraud some other way."

Since August 2007, all U.S. passports have come embedded with an RFID chip, intended to deter fraud and improve security. The chip contains the same information as on the passport's picture page, including a digital version of the passport photograph.

According to the federal Bureau of Consular Affairs, the passport chip is designed with security features to thwart unauthorized access. It can be "read" only when the passport book is open.

Some who don't like the idea of having an electronic chip that could be compromised suggest microwaving the passport to deactivate the chip or even smashing it with a hammer.

It's a criminal offense to "alter" a passport or its chip, though, and could lead to penalties. According to the Bureau of Consular Affairs, "Any degradation of the passport book may lead to invalidation of that book."

Some consumers figure it's easier to use a fraud-proof case, just in case. Companies such as REI sell thin, waterproof, sleeves — $6.50 for three — that block RFID signals similarly to Hardy's wallet.