Feds test RFID controls at U.S. borders

Homeland Security hopes the chips, embedded in customs forms, will make entry and exit speedier and more secure for foreign visitors.

Anne Broache Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Anne Broache
covers Capitol Hill goings-on and technology policy from Washington, D.C.
Anne Broache
3 min read
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has begun testing immigration documents laced with radio-frequency identification chips at five spots on the Mexican and Canadian borders.

The goal of the technology is to speed up--if not automate--secure entry and exit of visitors at the nation's ports, according to a Homeland Security press release.

The chips are embedded in Customs and Border Protection Form I-94A, which the government issues at all ports of entry to chart the departure and arrival of certain foreign visitors--typically those with nonimmigrant visas, such as students or guest workers.

At the test sites, chip readers note the entry or exit of visitors who pass by and transmit that information to a government-maintained database. Each tag carries only a serial number, which cannot be changed, and holds no personal identifiers. Only U.S. government officials have the ability to link that number to the visitor's personal records, the press release said.

The technology used is "largely transparent to visitors, requiring no additional stops by vehicles or pedestrians entering or exiting the five ports," the press release said. Visitors do, however, have to make the form "visible" when crossing the border "to ensure optimal reading."

The tests are under way at land ports in Arizona, New York and Washington state--selected for their variety of weather and traffic conditions--and will continue until early next summer.

The technology is part of US-Visit, a government program that relies on biometric and biographical information from visitors around the world to screen and verify visitors' identities.

The procedures are currently in place at entry points at 115 airports and 15 seaports, and at secondary inspection centers in 50 land ports. The State Department, for its part, has already kicked off an effort to require that all visitors carry so-called e-passports tied to biometric data.

Since their creation in 2004, US-Visit policies have been used to deny visas to about 7,000 applicants, more than a third of whom had fingerprints matching those on law enforcement and security watch lists, the Department of Homeland Security announced in May. As of that time, fingerprint matches and other biometric data collected through US-Visit have stopped about 600 people from entering the country and aided in making 39 arrests.

The trouble is, overbroad exemptions for Mexican and Canadian visitors dilute the program's security benefits, Jessica Vaughan, a senior policy analyst at the Center for Immigration Studies, argued in a paper released Monday.

Only about 22 percent of the neighboring visitors are obligated to receive screening, the paper said. Meanwhile, fraud and abuse of Border Crossing Cards used by Mexicans for entry continues, and the US-Visit controls have led to the interception of eight suspected Canadian terrorists. Homeland Security has also "displayed a remarkable lack of curiosity" about those who overstay their visas, Vaughan charged.

"Right now we are letting in about 150 million visitors a year on the honor system," Vaughan said in an e-mail to CNET News.com, "and if we learned anything from 9/11, it's that it's very risky to admit so many people without confirming their identity, screening them against a look-out list, and making sure they abide by the terms of their visa."

She suggested that without policy changes, the system "could well turn into little more than a high-tech Potemkin Village,"--that is, a sham.