passports have them. And these days, many more U.S.
credit cards are starting to carry them, too.
tiny plastic chips embedded in passports and credit
cards are primarily designed to thwart fraud and
counterfeiting. But they also make many credit card
users and travelers uneasy about the potential for
someone with prying eyes trying to steal their personal
Levitsky, a seasoned traveler who spent a month last
fall in France and Morocco, said sheís concerned.
"Iíve heard that the chip allows a thief with a
scanner to walk by you and scan your cards while theyíre
still in your purse, unless you have them in a
her credit cards and passport arenít new enough to
contain a microchip, Levitsky said sheís feeling
"the pinch" of needing to be prepared.
big a worry?
chip technology is different between passports and most
credit cards, the tiny chip contains encrypted data that
are activated only when the card is inserted into a
designated "smartcard" reader, such as at a
store or restaurant. So fears of having someone
"skim" your microchipped credit card are
largely unwarranted, security officials say.
however, use a different technology known as RFID (or
Radio Frequency Identification), the same type used to
tag clothing, pets, even artificial replacements for
hips and knees. When embedded in a U.S. passport, the
chip can be scanned only by someone at close range with
an RFID reader, usually within a couple feet.
thereís valid concern about having your microchipped
passport "skimmed" by a tech thief, actually
having it happen is unlikely, some security officials
someone nearby could read whatís in your wallet. Thatís
why I keep my passport in an RFID-shielded wallet,"
said G. Mark Hardy, president of National Security
Corp., based in Rosedale, Md., which provides
cybersecurity expertise to government and corporate
he said, "itís less likely to happen, at this
point in time, because itís so much easier to do fraud
some other way."
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 passportís picture page, including a digital
version of your passport photograph. (You can still use
a pre-2007 passport that doesnít contain a chip. Once
your passport expires, a new one will contain an RFID
to the federal Bureau of Consular Affairs, the passport
chip is designed with security features to thwart
unauthorized access. Also, it can be "read"
only when the passport book is open. When the cover is
shut, the information on the chip supposedly canít be
scanned by an RFID device.
a newer U.S. travel document, a wallet-sized passport
card, also has a chip. It contains only an
identification number, not personal information from the
card itself. However, "To address concerns that
passport card bearers can be tracked by this
technology," the consular bureauís website says,
"We are requiring that the vendor provide a sleeve
that will prevent the (passport) card from being read
while inside it."
like that passport chip? There are plenty of suggestions
online by those who donít like the idea of having an
electronic chip that could be compromised. Some suggest
microwaving your passport to deactivate the chip
(although at least one user warned that the chipís
metal could cause microwave sparking.) Others suggest
taking a hammer to the passportís backside, smashing
your chip is disabled, intentionally or not, your
passport is still valid, even if itís singed or a
little beat up.
itís not a good idea, security officials say. "I
donít recommend microwaving a passport. Leave the chip
there," said Hardy, who recently started a new
company, CardKill.com, that helps credit card companies
identify stolen credit cards and deactivate them
traveling, Hardy uses an RFID-shielded wallet that he
bought at a hacker convention. "It means that
anybody who tries to pull the signal wonít make it
through. Itís like insulation."
passport officials say itís illegal to tamper with a
passportís chip, even if the intent is not fraudulent.
Itís a criminal offense to "alter" a
passport and could lead to penalties. According to the
Bureau of Consular Affairs, "Any degradation of the
passport book may lead to invalidation of that
consumers figure itís just easier to stick a credit
card or passport in a fraud-proof case, just in case.
Travel companies, for instance, offer "RFID-shielded"
wallets or tiny cases like those used to carry business
cards, often containing aluminum. Companies like REI
sell thin, waterproof RFID-blocking sleeves Ė $6.50
for three Ė that are intended to protect credit and
years ago, a Consumer Reports writer described making
her own RFID-proof case using duct tape and aluminum
veteran traveler Levitsky, once her credit card and
passport are chipped, she plans to keep them encased in
a protective cover.
would I want to be sitting on a (travel) bus and give it
all away?" she said. "Bad guys are out
IN A CHIP?
credit cards and U.S. passports have embedded chips, but
they operate differently. Here are some details:
recently, most U.S. credit cards were issued with a
magnetic stripe on the back, which contained your
individual account information. Now, major credit card
providers American Express, Visa, MasterCard and
Discover are requiring financial institutions and
retailers to switch to microchipped credit cards, which
use encryption technology to protect the cardís data.
The technology is known as EMV, for Europay, MasterCard
and Visa, who created the global microchipped payment
Widely used in more than 80 countries, credit cards with
microchips are harder to counterfeit than magnetic
stripe cards. Because the account information is
encrypted, the cards are considered safer when used for
point-of-sale payment transactions. The chip appears as
a small square on the front of the credit card.
U.S. card issuers and retailers face an October 2015
deadline to have microchipped credit cards and readers
in place. If not, stores and banks could be on the
financial hook for fraudulent losses due to use of
magnetic stripe cards. Ahead of the deadline, a number
of major banks, like CitiBank, already offer
microchipped cards to customers.
of summer 2007, all new U.S. passports carry a tiny RFID
chip embedded in the front cover. Each chip contains the
identical personal information found on the passportís
picture page, including a digital image of your
The RFID chip is designed to help detect counterfeiting,
deter terrorism and speed up customs, according to the
federal Bureau of Consular Affairs.
used: The passportís RFID chip can be scanned by
immigration officials using a close-range reader. Your
RFID number and passport number will match up with data
in Department of Homeland Security databases. Security
features built into the card are intended to prevent
random access to the RFID information. The passportís
cover also acts as a shield; when the booklet is closed,
the chip typically canít be read.
they are: A simpler, less expensive version of a regular
passport, these wallet-size cards are designed for
crossing borders Ė by land or sea Ė into Mexico,
Canada, Bermuda or the Caribbean. They cannot be used
when flying into one of those countries or for any other
Introduced in 2008, more than 7 million passport cards
have been issued to U.S. citizens. They typically cost
$30, compared with $110 for a regular U.S. passport.
used: Like a regular passport, passport cards contain an
embedded RFID chip. However, unlike a traditional
passport, the cardís RFID contains only an
identification number linked to a "secure
database," maintained by the Department of Homeland
Security. To prevent skimming, the cards are issued with
a protective sleeve.
Bureau of Consular Affairs, U.S. Department of State