DHS expands RFID use at borders today

Tags will be used at land and sea crossing points

The Homeland Security Department today began requiring a more strict regimen of high-tech identification documentation at the nation's land and sea borders under the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative.

Except for older passports, the new ID documents eligible for border crossings for U.S. travelers all have an embedded radio frequency identification (RFID) tag, which is a microchip that transmits data wirelessly.

Eligible documents for cross-border passage include the U.S. passport, U.S. passport card and enhanced driver’s license.

Passports issued since October 2006, and all the other eligible documents, all have RFID tags.

The travel program was developed as an outgrowth of intelligence reform legislation in 2004 to improve security by requiring more strict documentation of travelers at land and sea borders. Previously, U.S. citizens and legal residents were permitted to show a very broad range of documents to return across the border, including birth certificates and drivers licenses.

Under the program, U.S. travelers must display at least one eligible identification document, such as a U.S. passport, U.S. passport card, enhanced driver’s license, or trusted traveler cards (Fast, Nexus or Sentri) for commercial travelers and frequent travelers.

Currently, DHS in cooperation with four states — Michigan, New York, Vermont and Washington State — and with four provinces in Canada — British Columbia, Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec — produces the enhanced licenses that can be used for land border crossings.

In addition, the State Department has issued more than 1 million passport cards since it began production in July 2008. The cards are marketed as a smaller, more convenient and less expensive alternative the U.S. passport.

The RFID tags on the U.S. passport card, enhanced driver's licenses and trusted traveler cards have raised privacy concerns because they use a long-range form of RFID that can be scanned wirelessly at 20 to 30 feet. DHS has dealt with those concerns by adopting a protocol in which the RFID tags store and transmit only a reference number. The reference number must be matched with a secure DHS database to get personal information. Also, some of the cards are carried in special sleeves to protect against unauthorized transmission of data.

However, some privacy advocates still maintain that privacy is a concern because they contend thieves can clone the cards, steal the reference numbers and exploit potential security gaps.

The U.S. passport issued since October 2006 uses a different type of RFID that can only be read in close proximity to a reader.

Also, the data on the RFID tag is encrypted, and the passport book contains a metal screen to guard against unauthorized transmission.

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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