Homeland Security To Test RFID Tags At U.S. Borders

The department says RFID will improve its ability to match entries to exits without significantly increasing processing time.

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

January 25, 2005

3 Min Read

The federal government will test radio-frequency identification technology at ports of entry to improve its border-management system.

As part of the project, visitors entering the country will be issued RFID tags that will track their comings and goings at border crossings, according to the Department of Homeland Security. Initially, the government will test RFID tags at a simulated port this spring. After that, the government will test the technology at border crossings in Arizona, New York, and Washington state from the end of July through spring 2006. "Through the use of radio-frequency technology, we see the potential to not only improve the security of our country, but also to make the most important infrastructure enhancements to the U.S. land borders in more than 50 years," Asa Hutchinson, Homeland Security undersecretary for border and transportation security, said in a statement announcing the program. "We intend to see that it's done in the right way and at the right pace."

The department sees RFID technology as a means to improve the ability to match entries to exits without significantly increasing processing time or invading visitors' privacy. It also will enable the US-Visit (United States Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology) system to detect a visitor's tag and provide the primary inspection process with information and a procedure for establishing an accurate and timely record of exits without slowing a traveler through the process.

To protect privacy, the government assures tags won't include visitors' personal or biometric information. Rather, they will contain only serial codes that links to visitors' information securely stored in databases used by US-Visit. The serial codes would be meaningless to any third party trying to collect that information. The tags also will be tamper-proof and difficult to counterfeit. Information on the tags cannot be changed, and the tags will only be activated once they're officially issued. These factors will prevent so-called skimming, which is the use of unauthorized reading devices to capture information from RFID tags, the government contends. Also, authorities say, it'll be impossible to track the whereabouts of someone holding such a passive tag without a corresponding reading device.

The government hasn't decided whether the RFID tag would be affixed to passports, visas, or other documents visitors must carry during their stay in the United States. That will be determined during the test. A Homeland Security spokeswoman says whatever the decision, it shouldn't slow visitors movements through border crossings.

Despite the government's assurance that privacy will be protected, the new technology has some doubters. Jay Stanley, spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union, told the Associated Press that he's concerned the technology will infringe on privacy rights. "It permits automatic, invisible ID checks by the government," he says.

But Nogales Mayor Albert Kramer says such a system has long been needed to make the clogged border system more efficient. "Any improvement is welcome," he told the news service.

RFID is the latest technology the government is using to protect American borders. The government fingerprints foreigners entering the United States at the 50 busiest land crossings in 10 states as part of the new US-Visit screening system. The system scans photographs of the visitor's face and index fingers into a computer, which are matched with federal agencies' criminal databases.

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