The U.S. government will soon announce its decision on the technology to use for a border-crossing card that could boost radio frequency identification technology demand in North America by several million units annually.
The increase will come from the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative. If passed, the program will require U.S. citizens to carry a passport or other accepted document that establishes the bearer's identity and citizenship to enter or re-enter the United States.
The "other acceptable documentation" could come in the form of People Access Security Service, or PASS card, complete with embedded RFID chip. U.S. citizens traversing borders of Mexico, Canada, the Caribbean and Bermuda would have an option use the PASS card, rather than a passport. Today, travelers identify themselves with a driver's license or a birth certificate.
"If this goes into effect, the proposal says a passport or an alternative document would be required," said Anna Hinken, spokesperson at the Department of Homeland Security. "We are still determining what that alternative document will be."
The rule that requires travelers entering the United States by aircraft or ship to show passports at U.S. borders takes effect on Jan. 8, 2007. A similar requirement at land borders will go into force Jan. 1, 2008.
Through Sept. 25, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is taking comments on the proposed legislation.
Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW), American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and The Cato Institute, held a joint press conference on Thursday, releasing a report on why the three organizations collectively believe the PASS card fails on both cost and privacy issues.
Similar to new U.S. passports, the PASS card could include a radio frequency identification chip. "A RFID chip may be good for tracking produce, but not good for tracking people," said CAGW President Tom Schatz during Thursday's press conference. "They are costly, a threat to privacy, and there are more reasonable ways to authenticate a person's identity."
Schatz fears the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and State Department have underestimated the cost per card per person at $50 each. Not factored into the total cost are expenses like the 200 newly hired State Department employees who review passport applications.
ACLU Legislative Counsel on Privacy issues Tim Sparapani believes the database that the program will create to hold all the information on U.S. citizens that travel across borders will drive up identity theft. "A database system this massive that includes this much information, from an information technology perspective, is insecure and able to be hacked and broken into," he said. "That's a real danger to citizens and their personable privacy."
Frequent business travelers had mixed opinions on the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative. "I have no problem with an RFID card," said Keith Carlson, president and CEO at Innotas, an on-demand project management company, who travels to Mexico and Canada frequently. "It's a bit big brotherish to carry a card with RFID, but I like the technology in general."
Emergent Game Technologies vice president of engineering and system architect Larry Mellon, who travels frequently to Canada, called the program unnecessary.
"You already scan your passport when you go past the checkpoint," Mellon said. "There's already a massive database that holds information. RFID is just a faster scanning technology that can embed more information."
Mellon isn't opposed to tighter controls at the Canadian and the Mexican borders, but said securing non-border crossings seems a better place to start, rather than spending the money to issue RFID cards that track people as they go through manned checkpoints.
More than 120 million people legally cross the border between Texas and Mexico every year, according to the U.S. government.
Meanwhile, the U.S. State Department and the Department of Homeland Security are in a heated debate as to the type of RF technology to use.
Not surprisingly, the RFID technology and contactless chip industry has been lobbying the government to use the same chip technology being embedded in passports or the national Real ID card, as in the PASS card. Technology advocates argue the card reader, for example, cannot scan the chip in the passport without the carrier's permission because of the proximity the passport must be to the reader, but those who oppose believe different.