Feds extend RFID tests in travel documents

The Homeland Security Department expects to begin a second phase of tests this summer issuing travel documents containing radio frequency identification technology to foreign visitors at three selected land entry ports into the United States, officials said today.

The documents, which contain RFID chips, are scanned wirelessly from up to about 35 feet away while displayed by the foreign visitors entering and exiting the ports in their vehicles.

"In the future, the entry ports could look like toll plazas," P.T. Wright, director of mission operations for the department's U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology program, said today during a presentation at the FOSE government IT trade show in Washington. FOSE is sponsored by PostNewsweek Tech Media, the parent company of Washington Technology.

The RFID tests for U.S. Visit began a year ago at border ports in Nogales, Ariz., Pacific Highway/Peace Arch in Washington state and Alexandria Bay, N.Y. The RFID chips, which are tiny microprocessors, are embedded within a travel document issued to each U.S. Visit participant upon entry into the land port.

About 200,000 of the RFID-enabled documents have been issued since the tests began in February 2005, Wright said.

The RFID chip on the document is activated when issued and is activated again upon the visitor's departure from, and return to, the U.S. port. When the visitor is exiting the country in a vehicle, his or her travel document is scanned by antennas placed about 35 feet over the exit lane. Similarly, upon reentry, the document is scanned by an array of antennas placed next to the vehicle entry lane.

To protect the visitor's privacy, the RFID document contains only a 60-digit reference number, which provides no identifying information on its own. Under U.S. Visit, the number is matched with personal information contained in the department's secure database to confirm the identity of the person displaying the document.

The RFID tests have cost about $20 million so far, with about $5 million being spent on the RFID chips alone, Wright said. The goal is to obtain a "proof of concept" to determine whether the RFID chips can be read efficiently and accurately to meet the requirements of the program.

"We need virtually 100 percent confidence that the 'read' was recorded," Wright said. "It will be vigorous testing."

In the second phase, part of the testing will focus on linking information on the RFID chip to information identifying the vehicles, Wright said.

The program also requires accurate readings of visitors traveling in groups, and on buses, he added.

"One of our requirements is being able to do 55 reads from a busload of individuals," Wright said.

The U.S. Visit RFID program, if successful, may need to be interoperable other travel document programs, such as the anticipated People Access Security Service card for frequent border crossers. However, Wright said "no decision has been made yet" on whether to include RFID within the PASS card.

As the department moves toward using RFID, it will need to harmonize the various card requirements and readers so they are interoperable and to avoid having to use multiple cards and readers, he said.

"You won't want to be carrying five different cards," Wright said.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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