RFID: Prepare to be carded

DHS weighs different technologies for moving people across borders

The recent extension of radio frequency identification testing at border crossings appears to have boosted the technology. But difficult decisions still lay ahead for the Homeland Security Department in integrating, particularly for border crossing, RFID applications and standards into a single document or card, government officials and IT experts said.

There is a drive to develop a common RFID standard for all border crossing identification cards, but one of the main challenges is harmonizing different privacy considerations that apply to holders of each type of card.

Ultra-high frequency RFID, which permits readings of information at up to 60 feet away, may spark the greatest privacy concern.

"It has the potential for quickly identifying American citizens in a crowd," possibly exposing people to harm, said P.T. Wright, a Homeland Security official involved in RFID card development, in response to a question at a FOSE trade show presentation March 8.

RFID-enabled documents are read at 35 feet away in tests by the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology (U.S. Visit) program, which affects foreign visitors only. To safeguard privacy, the RFID documents transmit only a series of numbers, which must be matched to a database to identify a person.

But the upcoming People Access Security Services card, referred to as the Pass card and which will be issued to U.S. citizens who frequently cross U.S. borders with Canada and Mexico, is likely to have different privacy considerations.

Like the RFID-enabled e-passport it resembles, the card, which DHS and the State Department will issue, may contain personal information. If the Pass card is RFID-enabled ? and no decision has been made yet ? it could require greater privacy protections and a more restrictive reading distance to protect privacy.

At a recent Senate hearing, DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff said the agency was pushing to develop a single RFID standard for border crossing cards, including not only U.S. Visit and Pass, but also possibly the Mexican "laser visa" Border Crossing Card, Nexus and Sentri trusted traveler cards and the Free and Secure Trade commercial truck driver identification cards.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) asked Chertoff why, in moving toward a single border crossing card, the department appears to be supporting the ultra high-frequency RFID standard instead of the e-passport RFID standard.

"I don't think a decision has been made," Chertoff said. "I've talked to Secretary [Condoleeza] Rice about this, and I think we've both agreed that we actually ought to migrate to a common standard ? I want to have a chip, some kind of RFID chip, that is compatible, whether we do it in a passport or in a border crossing card or in some other kind of card."

The primary reason for moving to a single RFID-enabled card or document is efficiency, to avoid having multiple cards and readers at the border ports.

"You won't be carrying five cards," said Wright, director of mission operations for U.S. Visit, at FOSE March 8. "We're looking to the future."

But integrating the DHS border crossing cards could be a slow and difficult process, because of thorny privacy issues and because the federal government already has invested in particular technologies.

"There are some significant policy issues involved," said a federal official who is involved in the RFID discussions, but who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issues. "It's not close to being resolved."

The State Department's e-passport plan sparked controversy for months when it was first introduced, because of privacy concerns. Additional security features addressed the problem. A similar fate could await a harmonized RFID border crossing card.

"The question is how the information on the card will be secured, and whether or not it would meet the privacy and security requirements people would expect to have when they are issued this type of identity document," said Randy Vanderhoof, executive director of industry group, the Smart Card Alliance. Judging by the State Department's experience with the e-passport, there may be caution in assessing RFID technologies for the Pass card, he said.

In U.S. Visit testing, the RFID chips, which are tiny microprocessors, have been embedded in travel documents issued to about 200,000 foreign visitors at five entry ports in Arizona, New York and Washington states since the tests began last year.

A reader 35 feet overhead wirelessly scans the documents while visitors leave the United States in their vehicles. Readers mounted several feet away along traffic lanes again scan the documents when visitors re-enter the country.

The department this summer will begin a second phase of tests to see if dozens of the RFID-enabled travel documents can be read simultaneously at high speeds, and to see if the documents can be matched efficiently with vehicle license plates.

"In the future, the entry ports could look like toll plazas," Wright said.

The tests have shown that the RFID documents can be read accurately when the cars are moving at speeds of up to 50 miles per hour, said Bill Hartwell, vice president of the federal area for Holtsville, N.Y.-based Symbol Technologies Inc., whose RFID solution is being tested in U.S. Visit.

The tests have shown highly accurate read rates for people driving 50 miles per hour, Hartwell said. "In some cases, eight lanes of traffic are being scanned," he said.

Maintaining highway speeds is a consideration in exit lanes, but not in entry lanes, he said.

"One of the things we're interested in is maintaining the speed of commerce and allowing people to leave the country," Hartwell said. "Coming in is a different scenario."

Staff Writer Alice Lipowicz can be reached at alipowicz@postnewsweektech.com.

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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