State Department argues vicinity RFID technology would bolster border security

Published 8 January 2008

State will use vicinity RFID technology in new passport cards; technology allows cards to be read from about twenty feet; privacy advocates and champions of alternative technologies charge the decision poses serious risks to privacy

Federal officials are optimistic that the State Department’s published specifications for new passport cards for U.S. citizens will kick-start technology improvements at U.S. border stations. The Department of State announced a final rule for passport cards on 31 December to facilitate travel between the United States, Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Bermuda. The rule requires cards with vicinity radio frequency identification (RFID) tags to shorten delays at land border crossings. Currently, U.S., Canadian, and Bermudian citizens entering the United States across land and sea borders are not required to present citizenship documents. FCW’s Ben Bain writes that in the meantime, DHS conditionally accepted software for the first task order under SBInet, a multibillion-dollar project to deploy technology and tactical infrastructure to secure U.S. borders. Customs and Border Protection (CPB) agency officials said the announcements will help bolster security and facilitate legitimate movement of goods and people across U.S. borders.

Each day, CBP agents inspect 1.1 million travelers, 327,000 cars, and 85,000 shipments of goods. They also intercept 21,000 fraudulent identification documents and 200,000 people who are refused entry each year. At a field hearing of the House Homeland Security Committee in El Paso, federal officials, government auditors, and other experts testified about the growing concern regarding CBP’s ability to deal with technological advances. Richard Stana, the Government Accountability Office’s (GAO) director of homeland security and justice issues, testified that CBP needs more employees, some guards have insufficient training, and the agency needs a better management structure and more money to update older facilities. CBP estimated that it would require about $4 billion to make capital improvements to U.S. land ports, according to Stana’s testimony. “The average age of our facilities is 42 years old, and they were not designed for our current operations,” said Thomas Winkowski, assistant commissioner at CBP’s office of field operations, in written testimony submitted at the hearing. “The vast majority of these facilities were not built to incorporate all of the enhanced security features that are now present at our ports of entry.… Our facilities are stretched to the limit.”

Derwood Staeben, Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI) program manager at State, said the new passport cards will improve border security. Officials said they hope the cards will be available this spring. The cards will let border guards use a vicinity RFID technology to access travelers’ unique identifying number and begin to screen people as they wait in line. Lawmakers recently delayed the deadline for implementing WHTI to 1 June 2009 as part of the approved fiscal 2008 DHS budget. Appropriators approved $225 million for 2008 for State and DHS to advance the project.

Privacy advocates and trade association such as the Smart Card Alliance have criticized the decision to use vicinity-read RFID technology because they say it is less secure than the proximity-read RFID technology contained in U.S. electronic passports (vicinity RFID technology allows readers to read an ID from a distance of about twenty feet, while proximity RFID technology allows readers to do so from one to two feet only). State and DHS officials argue that there is no increased risk of privacy violations because the new passport cards will contain no personally identifiable information, just a unique identifying number that only CBP agents can use in conjunction with certain databases. Furthermore, CBP has employed the same technology as part of its trusted traveler programs, said CBP spokeswoman Kelly Klundt.

Meanwhile, Boeing is late again (remember Project 28): The company has been chided for delays in completing the project’s first task order. DHS awarded Boeing a $64 million SBInet task order to design, develop, and test an upgraded Common Operational Picture software system.