United State Defense officials are reporting that American contractors were carrying coins planted on them in Canada that contained radio frequency identification (RFID) transmitters. RFID transmitters are small chips that contain a small power source to allow these items to broadcast small bits of information. RFID is used for inventory tracking, security tagging, keyless door locks on cars, and electronic toll systems. Transmission ranges can vary by the type of chip used and the environment.
Reports confirm that an unidentified Canadian coin was hollowed out and its metal replaced with the RFID transmitter. The coins were “planted” on three security cleared contractors between October 2005 and February 2006 as they traveled through Canada.
RFID transmitters can be used to track the movements of those carrying the coins. “You might want to know where the individual is going, what meetings the individual might be having and, above all, with whom,” said David Harris, a former Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) officer. “The more covert or clandestine the activity in which somebody might be involved, the more significant this kind of information could be.”
Containers made to look like US dollar coins are a familiar tactic to US intelligence agencies. The CIA displays such a case on their museum website. The International Spy Museum in Washington, DC has similar displays. As for Canadian coins, the most likely coin used is the $1 coin, nicknamed the Loonie because its traditional reverse design features a Common Loon, a dominant bird in Canada. The Loon is 26.5 millimeters in diameter and 1.95 millimeters thick. The $2 coin, nicknamed the Twoonie, is a bi-metallic coin and would be more difficult to modify.
Although the type of RFID chip has not been identified, experts are saying that the transmitter in a coin would have a limited transmission range. It is said that the metal casing could constrain its range. Some of the technologies do have limited transmission ranges, but there are versions of the technology that could be tracked for a few kilometers.
“I’m not aware of any (transmitter) that would fit inside a coin and broadcast for kilometers,’ said Katherine Albrecht, an activist who believes such technology carries serious privacy risks. “Whoever did this obviously has access to some pretty advanced technology.”
The risk of the carrier spending the coin is great. but the ability to track a potential target would be a risk spies might take. As our Canadian friends search their change, they may want to see if the coins have been hollowed and contains an RFID chip. That would be an interesting find!