Motorola urges RFID tags for passport cards

Long-distance radio frequency identification tags are the best technology choice for the upcoming U.S. passport card program despite their apparent shortcomings in a previous federal test, a Motorola Inc. executive said.

Motorola is taking a "very strong position" to highlight the unique benefits of the ultrahigh-frequency RFID tags for border crossing and identification applications, Joe White, vice president for RFID solutions at Motorola, told Washington Technology. Laser card and "smart card" industry representatives in recent months have made similar arguments about the suitability of their technologies for the federal government's People Access Security Services (PASS) card implementation.

The long-distance RFID tags offer convenience and high-speed reads appropriate for processing heavy traffic at the borders, White said. Moreover, the newest versions have more memory, encryption capacity and protection from cloning.

"Ultrahigh-frequency RFID is on the front side of the wave of innovation," White said.

The Homeland Security and State departments have selected the controversial ultrahigh-frequency RFID tags for the upcoming PASS card implementation. The new identification cards are to be a smaller, cheaper alternative to passports for crossing the U.S. land borders. The tags also are expected to be used on hybrid driver's license and border cards in Arizona, New York, Vermont and Washington State.

Privacy advocates have criticized long-distance RFID tags because the data on the tag can be easily scanned from distances of 20 feet or more. To protect against this, DHS and State have proposed that the only data on the card would be a reference number that would need to be matched against a secure database to obtain personal information on the cardholder.

But documents with similar RFID tags also have shown problems in tests. Motorola's long-distance RFID tags were used by DHS from 2004 to 2006 in a test involving I-94 documents for border crossing in the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology program. In that demonstration, the RFID tags were embedded in the I-94 documents issued to foreign visitors and were to be scanned at long distances when the visitors re-entered the United States at land ports.

According to the Government Accountability Office, the department found numerous performance and reliability problems in those tests. Readers detected fewer than half the RFID tags, GAO said. In the worst week at one port, only 14 percent of the tags were read accurately.

"The RFID test proved, as GAO indicated, unsuccessful," DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff told the House Homeland Security Committee Feb. 9.

White asserts that Motorola's RFID technology was not at fault in those tests. Rather, the problem was poor design and controls used during the test, and gaps in training for participants while the test was being done, he said. For example, readers were unplugged and inoperable for periods of time at some test locations while the tests were being conducted, he said.

Second, foreign visitors apparently did not realize they needed to display the documents in the open air during the testing. If they kept the I-94 documents in their wallets or briefcases, the RFID tags might not be read, White said.

"The low accuracy was a function of application design and education," White said. With proper system design and training, he said, the RFID tags can deliver accuracy in the 98 percent to 100 percent range.

He also said there are statistical concerns about how the test results were calculated by DHS because it would be difficult to verify how many foreign visitors returning to the U.S. during the test period were issued the documents.

With proper design and education, ultrahigh-frequency RFID tags present the best technology choice for the Pass card, White said. Motorola has bid on a Pass card request for proposals issued by State earlier this year, but the results of that competition have not yet been announced.

Although he hopes that the federal government will select Motorola's solution, White said the requirements for the Pass card program are not yet fully defined.

White said it would be beneficial if DHS and State would issue more specific requirements, such as how many reads must be handled per second, at what distance reads should be made and at what speed can the tag be moving without negatively affecting accuracy.

Motorola of Schaumburg, Ill., ranks No. 38 on Washington Technology's 2007 Top 100 list of the largest federal government prime contractors.

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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