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States to test ID chips on foreign visitors

Homeland Security Deptartment plan calls for issuing high-tech documents at several border crossings this summer.

The United States is eyeing a controversial tracking technology to aid tightened immigration controls at border crossings to Mexico and Canada.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security plans to begin issuing special identification devices to foreign visitors arriving by foot and by car by July 31, according to a Tuesday announcement from the agency.

The devices will contain microchips storing a unique identification code that's linked via government computers to document holders' names, countries of origin, dates of entry and exit, and biometric data.

The department plans to begin issuing the high-tech IDs to foreign visitors at border crossings in Nogales, Ariz.; Alexandria Bay, N.Y.; and Blaine, Wash., as part of a yearlong test of the system.

The goal of using the technology is to more easily track visitors' arrival and departure, and to catch those who overstay their visas, the agency said. It should also speed up inspection procedures at checkpoints. Border officials can simply scan the chips, which signal their ID numbers via radio frequency, from a distance and automatically gather the data they need.

The new chip system is part of the US-VISIT program, a federal initiative designed to capture and share data such as fingerprints and photographs of foreign visitors. The program, which the government put into motion a year ago, is part of a broader push to guard national security in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

The United States has processed more than 17.5 million visitors through the US-VISIT program so far and has arrested or denied entry to 407 of them because of the new procedures, the agency said.

As part of a separate but related program, the State Department is experimenting with embedding the ID devices, also known as radio-frequency identification (RFID) chips, in American passports to deter fakes and theft. The government is urging other countries to do the same.

Privacy advocates are concerned, however, that RFID technology could give governments and corporations, who've begun using it to keep tabs on inventory, too much surveillance power.