Playing with surveillance: The design of a mock RFID-based identification infrastructure for public engagement

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Karen Louise Smith
Brenda McPhail
Joseph Ferenbok
Alex Tichine
Andrew Clement


In many jurisdictions around the globe, governments are developing ID schemes based on radio frequency identification (RFID) and biometric technologies. In Canada, four provinces recently implemented RFID based ‘enhanced’ drivers licences (EDL) in response to the United States’ Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI), which requires all persons entering the United States to present a valid passport or alternative ‘secure’ document to prove their identity and citizenship.

As researchers, we were closely involved in following the EDL policy development process. It became evident, as we attended legislative hearings, that parliamentarians needed clarifications to understand how the RFID identification scheme would function in practice. This project began with the goal of designing prototypes to demonstrate security and civil liberty concerns with a new RFID-based identification (ID) scheme in Canada. Influenced by participatory design and probe approaches to technology design, we built and tested mock infrastructures of RFID-based identification systems including low fidelity paper prototypes, and high fidelity prototypes using RFID-chipped cards, a database, antenna and reader. We also worked closely with civil society organizations to run public engagement activities.

This paper reports on our attempts to create spaces for ‘playful’ engagement with RFID-based ID scheme technology at a time of ‘serious’ policy deliberations. Designed in the spirit of serious play, our mock ID infrastructures make the security and civil liberties challenges inherent in the proposed combination of ID cards and databases more visible, while demonstrating how such ID schemes work. At this point, we see future promise in the design and use of mock ID infrastructure for public engagement during relevant policy deliberations about ID schemes and databases which contain personal information.

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