Fetch me the Tinfoil!

Another failure of media skepticism in the news–the mysterious Canadian spy coins.
“On at least three separate occasions between October 2005 and January 2006, cleared defense contractors’ employees traveling through Canada have discovered radio frequency transmitters embedded in Canadian coins placed on their persons,” reads the brief explanation in the U.S. Defense Security Report.”

This story was covered widely in both print and online media. However, an official statement from the military now says the story was a fake. But…almost immediately after the story’s initial release, a variety of electronics experts said the spy coins–which were supposedly tagged with a RFID chip–would not be able to work.

Would a better understanding of how the chips work have led to more skepticism by the media? Do you know what a RFID chip is?

If you don’t, you might want to spend some time learning more. They’re here, and you should know how they work. Especially if you are a US Citizen, or someone with one of those “SmartCard” credit or gas cards.

RFID has a lot of legitimate and useful purposes. Who wouldn’t be in favor of a chip for firefighters that would help locate them if they are lost in a burning building? Or chips to prevent library book theft?

But, as a person who is mildly obsessed with privacy (Okay, other than posting pictures of my boobs online), I like to know who has my info, and what they are doing with it.

The biggest concerns are hacking the chips–because the information is broadcast on a radio frequency, a smart geek can clone the chip, or at least read the information.SkepStore Thong!

Now, there are also plenty of people saying the RFID controversy is hugely overblown. (Suggestions that “your underpants will report on you” also isn’t terribly helpful to the debate.) What to do?

Your best bet, just like with pseudo-scientific topics, is to inform yourself. We are surrounded by electronic devices and technology. We also are surrounded by a small number of people with bad intentions. They’d like your money–either by scamming you as a phone psychic, or downloading all the info on your old phone.

Do you know how your electronics work? Do you know how to protect your identity?

Oh, and the tin foil? Here’s how to use it to block transmission from your passport or smart credit card.


Bug_girl has a PhD in Entomology, and is a pointy-headed former academic living in Ohio. She is obsessed with insects, but otherwise perfectly normal. Really! If you want a daily stream of cool info about bugs, follow her Facebook page or find her on Twitter.

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  1. Oh man, I hope that underpants thing isn't true. the last thing I need is the government keeping tabs on every time I pitch a tent.


  2. I'm pretty pissed about the RFID passports. I'd like to have a passport, but I refuse to get one that has RFID in it. The security on those things is a joke. Pretty much every country that rolls out RFID passports has the encryption broken within a couple of months at most.

    Identity theft is a big enough problem without the government trying to help out the thieves like this.

  3. word on the street is a quick spin in the microwave disables the passport chip.

    Or, there's the tinfoil :)

  4. I've got a friend who's my polar opposite on these things. He's a big conspiracy nut. Good guy but a nut.

    He beleives that in five years he's only going to be able to buy clothes from a thrift store becaues everything is going to have those chips in it.

  5. bug: Yeah, but what happens when the customs guy waves it at his machine and gets nothing? Is tampering with the RFID in your passport a crime? Everything else is these days. Why not that?

    When the choice is "Get your identity stolen" or "Get sent to Gitmo", I'll pick option C: stay in the damned country… at least until it's Boat People time, but fortunately I think we've turned that particular tide back somewhat lately.

  6. I want to go to TAM next year, my passport runs out this year, and I think my new passport is required to have some wacky new chip in it or something, so that the US will allow us the visa waiver…

    Silly chips.

  7. if the microwave disables it, there is no way for you to be busted for tampering with it. I would think if you removed it, yes, but not if you tossed it for a spin. I would imagine that you might be brought into an interogation room and harrassed for a bit, and maybe have to pay for a new passport though.

  8. A US citizen might be willing to try this when going to other countries, but I wouldnt want to try going to the US with a busted RFID chip these days, it could end up being a very expensive and short trip if your customs officer lost their girlfriend last night. The tinfoil sounds more practical and much more appealing as well given its traditional symbolism in this area.

    Me I figure Im so boring anyone trying to find out my entire life only has themselves to blame.

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