DHS tunes out RFID

The Homeland Security Department is abandoning the idea of using radio frequency identification tags to track foreign visitors leaving the country because the technology was not proven successful in testing, according to DHS secretary Michael Chertoff.

In Feb. 9 testimony to the House Homeland Security Committee, Chertoff confirmed that RFID testing performed as part of the U.S. Visitor and Immigration Status Indicator Technology (U.S. Visit) program at several land border crossing points was not effective.

In those tests, foreign visitors were given an I-94 document with an embedded RFID tag. When the RFID tag passed through exit lanes at the border, it was to be read wirelessly by readers suspended above the lanes. The RFID tags contained a reference number linked to a departmental database with biometric information on the visitor issued the document.

The Government Accountability Office in a Jan. 31, 2007, report said the readers did not detect the tags reliably.

"The RFID test proved, as GAO indicated, unsuccessful," Chertoff told the committee.

"I mean, this is the real world," Chertoff said. "I think, yes, we're abandoning it. That's not going to be a solution. So in the real world, when something fails, we drop it and we move to the next thing," he added

Chertoff addressed several challenges facing the U.S. Visit program, which records fingerprints for all foreign visitors. The program also is intended to track when visitors exit the country, but Chertoff said the department is facing serious hurdles in meeting that goal.

To improve U.S. Visit and make it interoperable with FBI fingerprinting and other programs globally, the program is increasing the number of fingerprints needed for entry into the country from two to 10 for entry, and will be deployed oversees and at all major points of entry by the end of 2008, Chertoff told the committee.

As for the exit portion of U.S. Visit, Chertoff said the department is looking at a plan for implementing exit tracking at the airports, which he said is technologically possible. He declined to provide any further details.

Exit tracking at the land borders is proving to be very daunting, he added.

"I'll be very candid about where the challenge we face with exit," Chertoff said. "At the land ports of entry ? if we were to be required to stop every single person when they leave to determine who is a citizen and who's not a citizen, who gives their biometric and who doesn't give their biometric, we would have extremely long lines in places like Detroit and Buffalo, [as well as] the southern border, as well."

Chertoff suggested that one solution for keeping track of exits from the United States might be to work more closely with the Canadian and Mexican authorities in documenting the visitors entering their countries.

The department must come up with a more efficient system for tracking who is leaving the United States, Chertoff said. "That's going to require us to work with the Canadians and the Mexicans to see whether we can share information on their side of the border, so people only have to stop once rather than twice," he said.

Also at the hearing, Chertoff said the Bush administration's plans for a new temporary work visa will require identification cards for the foreign workers in that program.

"It is quite clear that a foundation of a temporary worker program will have to require a secure identification card and then that card will have to be something which it will be in the interest of the temporary worker to make sure is being recorded when that person enters and leaves the country," Chertoff 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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