A couple weeks ago, mindful of the horror stories about Americans needing to cancel overseas vacations running in the thousands of dollars because they couldn't get their passports renewed in a timely manner, I dutifully sent mine in for replacement.
"Don't smile," the Walgreens clerk told me, "or the State Department will reject your picture and send it back for a retake." The State Department has an opinion on smiling? Is there an "April Fool" in there somewhere?
I don't know what I marveled at more: that fact or the incredible profit machine passport pictures are for a drug store. It cost $7.50 for two dinky pictures that cost probably 25 cents to produce.
In less than two weeks, I had my new passport complete with my suitably reticent facial expression. Where was the processing delay? Someone must have received a no-bid contract to step it up.
I showed my passport to daughter #2. "How cool is this. There's a chip in my passport! Like I'm a library book with an RFID tag or a marathoner running across the mile 18 checkpoint."
"Wait a minute Mom. I thought you would find something like that objectionable. That means the government is tracking you. Doesn't that bother you?" said daughter #2.
"Not at all. That's what passports are supposed to do. They actually have a job beyond being a travel souvenir for cool point-of-entry stamps. The government has a right to track you crossing the border. And another government has the right to track your entry into their country."
"But you were so horrified by the IPASS."
"Well, if you asked most Americans if they would allow their state and federal government to track their movements within the country anytime they left town and drove on the interstate, most of them would say 'of course not. That's an outrage! I believe in freedom and I believe in my right to privacy.' But they happily give up their privacy freedom for 40 cents when they use an IPASS toll transponder to save on paying tolls. 40 cents! That's how little Americans value their privacy rights! Big Brother really is watching you. He's taking pictures of your license plates. He's keeping a record of your movements. Most Americans don't even seem to know or care they're doing it."
Later I was telling my friend about my new passport and musing out loud whether the population of San Francisco and Berkeley were taking this news about RFID chips lying down. The people there made such a row about RFID tags in their library books. They worried that someone with an RFID reader could figure out what they were reading as they left the building. Would an RFID reader near your passport tell people your social security number, your address and phone number, and your most recently visited countries?
"That's not an RFID tag," my friend said. "It's a GPS system. The government knows where you are at all times."
If it is, that hasn't been reported. A working GPS system on every American sure makes for a great big scary urban legend. What has been reported in all the passport stories is that RFID chips can be disabled by sticking them in the microwave. Somehow that makes the idea of Big Brother seem not that big.