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California outlaws RFID tag skimming

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California governor Schwarzenegger has signed a law making the illegitimate reading of RFID tags illegal, but blocked a measure making the unauthorised tracking of kids equally so.

RFID Journal reports that anyone skimming an RFID tag issued by a government agency, health insurance company, employer or library could find themselves in prison for up to a year, or facing a $1,500 fine, though you're OK if you read it by accident, for a medical emergency or if you're a law-enforcement official.

The measure also protects RFID tags issued by schools, which is good, because schools aren't required to tell parents that their kids are being RFID-equipped, thanks to the governor's blocking of law that would have required parental consent.

Anti-skimming laws are popping up all over the place: Washington passed one back in May, and Japan has had anti-skimming legislation since 2005. In many countries computer-hacking laws already cover the illegitimate reading of personal data, even if that data only comprises an identification number, but many of those still need to be tested in court before the legality of such action is known for sure.

The US passport comes with a foil wrapper designed to prevent skimming of the RFID data, but it's been shown to fail if the passport is even slightly open. The UK Passport Office has made no such attempt, making skimming technically easy if allegedly pointless.

The idea is that an RFID tag contains only an ID number, so if someone reads it then there's no problem as they still won't match up with the data connected to that number. The Hacker's Choice recently demonstrated an electronic passport programmed with Elvis' identity - but it's only useful if the immigration staff are relying on the technology to do their job, if the look at the picture they might notice that the carrier is not the long-dead crooner he claims to be.

UK company Peratech has been pushing its quantum-tunnelling technology, able to create a switch with no moving parts, as the solution to skimming/ The user would have to press on a button before the tag would operate, but while that might be feasible for a passport it's a little less practical on an Oyster Card.

California's new law is unlikely to put off serious fraudsters - it's more likely that legislation like this will be used to add weight to a case of actual fraud or theft.

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