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DHS border chief: Ask me about potato chips, not RFID chips

"I probably couldn't tell you the difference" between the two, says the head of the Homeland Security agency that uses the technology in its border-crossing passes.

WASHINGTON--We already know that some aging politicians and bureaucrats are prone to less-than-coherent ramblings about the technological topics that fall within their job descriptions (See: Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, former chairman of the panel overseeing Internet regulation, "The Internet is a series of tubes," July 2006).

You can imagine what goes through their minds: I really need to show the public that I get it. The only problem is that it doesn't always work.

Take an event held Wednesday at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a storied pro-business lobbying group. It was called "RFID Solutions: Securing the Commerce of Tomorrow." Representatives from government agencies, foreign embassies and RFID (that's radio frequency identification) vendors--some of whom were sponsors--came to listen to panels that lauded the benefits of using the track-and-trace chips in everything from pharmaceutical shipments to international relief.

W. Ralph Basham, CBP Commissioner U.S. Customs and Border Protection

Fast-forward to lunch and the chicken cordon bleu. U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Ralph Basham took the podium. Basham, a former Secret Service chief, launched into a speech about how his agency is the only one he's aware of to use RFID chips "operationally"--that is, they're not just used for building security or employee identification cards, as several other federal agencies do.

Basham boasted that they're currently embedded in "trusted traveler" cards carried by some 325,000 commercial truck drivers and frequent border-crossing commuters.

But before he even began his speech, he treated the audience to this witticism: "I probably couldn't tell you the difference between an RFID chip and a potato chip."

I wondered at first whether I had misheard him. After all, this was the same guy who went on to boast about how tech-enabled his agency is. But after his speech, he did it again. After agreeing to take a few questions from the audience, he reminded the packed ballroom not to ask him anything about chips--oh, "unless it's potato chips," of course.

During his talk, he described each of the RFID-chipped identification programs and sought to dismiss the need for privacy worries about the tactic. That's because the chips don't store any "personal information," Basham said--just a unique identifying number that's read from a distance by a border patrol agent's reader and transmitted through the air. He said such "vicinity"-read ID cards were a proven means of vetting people at the borders and had been used in trusted traveler cards since 1995.

"We are tagging a number, not a human being," he said. Referring to the Canadian and Mexican border-crossing cards, as well as the program for commercial truck drivers, he added: "SENTRI, NEXUS and FAST members do not have to worry about their personal ID or identity being stolen."

The only thing missing, I guess, was Basham proudly sharing with the audience that he couldn't figure out how to get rid of the blinking "12:00" on his VCR.