US passports and privacy
February 21, 2013 7:48 PM   Subscribe

I'm considering getting a US Passport Card (the kind that is only good for land and sea travel between the US, Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Bermuda) and am concerned about my privacy.

I don't consider myself a privacy nut*, but is there anything I should know before I get a passport card? Am I going to be more on the government's radar than I was before? Does just having a passport put me on some kind of watch list? "Citizens who have Passports."

*by that I mean, for example, I won't avoid using a credit card for a purchase just because it's trackable. But I do like to opt out of online tracking. So, I like my privacy, but I don't go overboard with making myself untrackable.

If it matters, the reason I'd be getting it is because at some point in the unknown future, I'd like to visit the Henry Ford Museum in Michigan, then head over the border into Canada and spend a day or two there. Just because, you know, I've never been out of the country and would like to experience it.
posted by IndigoRain to Travel & Transportation (22 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
Tens of millions of people have passports. Thats a pretty useless "watch list".
posted by sanka at 7:54 PM on February 21, 2013 [9 favorites]


There's literally no way around this. If you want to travel outside the country you need a passport card or full passport. End of story. If it's truly in the "unknown future," then hold off, perhaps, simply because these documents aren't cheap and they expire. You might as well wait till you're ready to travel and get the full value out of them.
posted by BlahLaLa at 7:59 PM on February 21, 2013


To be exact, there were 113,431,943 passports in circulation in 2012, which is just over a third of the US population and three times the entire population of California. A little broad for a watch list.

Especially since the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, many more people have had passports in order to travel to Canada, Mexico or the Caribbean. Plus others get passports, even though they have no pending international travel plans, in order to have a second form of identification in case their primary DL/state ID gets lost. (That's why I've always had a valid passport, even though I've gone years at a time without going abroad. It was very helpful to have another form of ID when I recently got my license and wallet stolen.)

There are legitimate government privacy concerns, but this is not one of them.
posted by andrewesque at 8:02 PM on February 21, 2013 [4 favorites]


I have an enhanced ID which is a license that you can get in VT and some other Canadian border states which involves extra paperwork and other hassles to get but is a similar thing to a passport card. Having something that can get you over the Canadian border is a good thing. It does, however, put you in a database that could have access to information like what international trips you took and when. The passports and the EIDs (and I assume the passport cards, but I do not know) have RFID chips in them which mean that theoretically they could be read from a distance. My EID came with a little envelope I could put mine in in case I was concerned about this. I am, personally, not concerned about that. I think the freedom you get from being able to leave the country when you want to is more important than the potential for tracking that you have to surrender to get a passowrd/EID. Everyone draws those lines differently, that's where I draw mine.
posted by jessamyn at 8:02 PM on February 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


So, I like my privacy, but I don't go overboard with making myself untrackable.

Avoiding getting a passport, for privacy reasons, is definitely "going overboard."

Also, getting a passport card is not going to meaningfully differ in terms of privacy concerns compared to a full passport. If there was some kind of pointlessly-broad watch list (about a third of US Citizens hold passports), one imagines that a passport card would put you on it as effortlessly as the 'regular' kind.
posted by Tomorrowful at 8:08 PM on February 21, 2013 [4 favorites]


Unless money is a huge concern, why not get a real passport? (Or passport and card.) You're jumping through hoops anyway, and sod's law says as soon as you get only a passport card, someone will offer you a free trip to Italy. That leaves next week.
posted by cyndigo at 8:11 PM on February 21, 2013 [4 favorites]


I have a Nexus card, through the TSA's pre-screen program. It lets me go through the pre-screen lines at airports and I can cross the Canadian border in a special lane. It took some expense and hassle, I had to do an in-person interview with the TSA and they did a deep background check.

I was also concerned about my privacy in doing this until the moment I saw Aaron Swartz post his own FBI file a few years ago. He was dragged into a lame case where the gov't was trying to say he stole free public domain documents, so they did some deep digging on him. When he was acquitted of all charges he did a FOIA request and got his own file. Looking into his file, you could see the FBI already has access to every IP address he used to purchase every plane ticket, what browser he was using, and where he was flying. After I saw that, I realized the TSA and FBI and others already have the power to go deep into my personal data and getting a card that makes border crossings easier won't really change much.

On the positive side, going through a TSA pre-screen line is like flying in 1970. You get to use the first class lines (much shorter) and then you keep your shoes, belt, etc on and just walk through a simple x-ray while your bags with laptops still inside go through the scanner. It literally takes me 30seconds to get through security at PDX now. Last year on an international trip, I watched a friend go through TSA-prescreen international customs in about five minutes while it took me about 90min to go through the normal customs. I haven't driven to Canada since I got my card but I imagine my fast lane pass will come in handy and speed up the crossing too.
posted by mathowie at 8:38 PM on February 21, 2013 [8 favorites]


BlahLaLa: "There's literally no way around this."

Sure there is. Not leaving the country!

cyndigo: "Unless money is a huge concern, why not get a real passport?"

Money is a concern, and I don't have any plans to go overseas. I highly doubt I'll get offered a free trip to Italy. :)
posted by IndigoRain at 9:26 PM on February 21, 2013


Also, I appreciate what you're saying, BlahLaLa, about waiting until we're ready to go, but Michigan is close enough for me that it could be a spur-of-the-moment weekend trip and it would be nice to be ready for that option.
posted by IndigoRain at 9:31 PM on February 21, 2013


A second photo ID can be useful if you loose your primary one. A passport is particularly good as it proves identity and citizenship. This is useful if you need to replace your state issued ID.

Passport cards are unfamiliar to most people. My job would not take it as proof of work eligibility. My DMV wouldn't accept it as proof of citizenship.

I think everyone should have a passport as a backup ID. Store it in a safe deposit box or in a fire safe appropriately bolted to the foundation of a family members house.
posted by fief at 11:00 PM on February 21, 2013


If you'd like to scratch a privacy itch regardless, spend five minutes making a foil-lined slip for the card/passport when not in use, so the RFID can't be wirelessly accessed.
Then put sweet stickers on the slip :)
posted by anonymisc at 12:08 AM on February 22, 2013


There is actually another piece of information you're giving up when you get a passport: "I plan to travel internationally." This can be relevent if, for instance, you're arrested for something and a prosecutor is trying to make a case for denying you bail. Also, I guess, if your passport were stolen then the thief would have easy access to your proper name, full date of birth, signature, and photo. I imagine this would make identify theft easier.

None the less, I would tend to say that the risks of fraud and so forth are less than the great advantage that you can travel internationally at the time you choose without having to go through the whole application process.
posted by Joe in Australia at 12:09 AM on February 22, 2013


Seconding anonymisc -- all new US passports and passport cards contain RFID chips, which can be scanned secretly to reveal such private things as your location... If you don't want to make it, you could also purchase one of these RFID blocking holders.
posted by iadacanavon at 2:05 AM on February 22, 2013


Did you see this FPP recently? And things like this comment? Having proof of citizenship in your wallet is not a bad idea if you live "near" the border and doubly so if you're not straight, white and obviously-born in the US (which you seemingly were, if you've never had a passport).

Technically, though, the answer to your question is yes. I don't suppose the State Department has any reason to know you exist and you're going to send them a piece of paper saying "Hi! Give me a passport card, please." I'm sure they have a list mapping passport numbers to people or something, though that's hardly a 'watch list'. But I don't think you have a whole lot to fear from the Bureau of Consular Affairs or whoever the passport people technically are.

Passport cards are unfamiliar to most people. My job would not take it as proof of work eligibility. My DMV wouldn't accept it as proof of citizenship.

The I-9 form has "US Passport Card" listed on the same line as "US Passport". Refusing a passport card is like the people who think you must have your Social Security card to complete that form (which, thankfully, is usually not the person having you fill in the form). There was almost certainly a lag before forms got updated, but at this point, I think the federal government has sorted it out, though I don't doubt there are states that haven't.
posted by hoyland at 6:03 AM on February 22, 2013


I think a couple people in this thread don't understand how RFID works. The RFID chip is not a privacy concern. You literally need to be about a foot away from it to read it, it's not like they can "wirelessly" locate you from a satellite, or from Washington, or whatever.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 7:35 AM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


And as far as skimming goes, "There is no personal information written to the RFID chip. This chip points to a stored record in secure government databases." Also: "A protective RFID-blocking sleeve is provided with each passport card to protect against unauthorized reading or tracking of the card when it is not in use."
posted by rabbitrabbit at 7:42 AM on February 22, 2013


"The RFID chip is not a privacy concern. You literally need to be about a foot away from it to read it"

While I don't know the type of RFID tag embedded in the U.S. passport and passcard, I can state with certainty that this is NOT necessarily true. Read range is a product of both the tag's RF broadcast range and the reader's RF reception range.

Many RFID readers in commercial use today can capture data from hundreds of tags simultaneously (item-level tags on a full pallet of packed products), at distances of 30 feet and more (anything that passes through a shipping dock door). Portable, battery-powered readers are common, affordable and hackable. And reader technology is constantly improving.

The possibility of unauthorized data capture from an unshielded RFID-enabled document is not trivial, though it is mitigated by limiting the information stored.
posted by peakcomm at 10:58 AM on February 22, 2013


And as far as skimming goes, "There is no personal information written to the RFID chip. This chip points to a stored record in secure government databases."

that page is specifically talking about the passport card, not a full passport. all the info I've seen about the full passport indicates it holds a machine-readable copy of the identification page, including photo.

note Wikipedia states the passport card is not an ICAO9303 compliant document (i.e. a biometric passport valid for international air travel)
posted by russm at 5:46 PM on February 22, 2013


Joe in Australia: " Also, I guess, if your passport were stolen then the thief would have easy access to your proper name, full date of birth, signature, and photo."

All of this information is on my driver's license as well, so I guess that probably doesn't matter.

I'm not super concerned about the RFID chip because I think I read it either comes with an RFID-blocking envelope or else it's really easy to make one/buy one.

Thanks everyone for your input, I think I'll feel safe proceeding with my application. Just wanted to know if there was anything I should worry about.

I'm still going to get the Passport Card because it's less expensive and I hate flying anyways. Should I, in the future, need a full Passport, I think (if I'm understanding correctly) I'll be eligible for renewal rates, not the full fee. I can always cross that bridge if/when I come to it.
posted by IndigoRain at 7:42 PM on February 22, 2013


I think I read it either comes with an RFID-blocking envelope or else it's really easy to make one/buy one.

It comes in a little paper sleeve that, as far as I know, is just paper and won't block RFID.

Should I, in the future, need a full Passport, I think (if I'm understanding correctly) I'll be eligible for renewal rates, not the full fee.

For what it's worth, that's how I read the fee schedule. Or, more precisely, I believe you'd be eligible to apply for a passport by mail, and I think you get hit with the $25 'execution fee' only when you use form DS-11, rather than DS-82, the renew by mail form. In other words, you're not actually saving money, because you pay the $25 once, regardless of what you apply for.
posted by hoyland at 7:06 AM on February 23, 2013


It comes in a little paper sleeve that, as far as I know, is just paper and won't block RFID.

It's a foil-lined paper sleeve, or at least it was a few years ago.
posted by one more dead town's last parade at 8:02 AM on February 26, 2013


As of September 2013, I can say that the passport card comes in a paper sleeve with no foil.
posted by stopgap at 5:00 PM on September 28, 2013


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