Congress puts brakes on 'passport-lite'

Lawmakers want DHS, State to agree on technology for PASS card

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.)

Uncle Sam's plans to design a passport-lite for mandatory use by citizens entering the country have become further mired in debate, as Congress has joined the conflict between the State and Homeland Security departments.

The fracas flows from the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, which set forth a plan to require more secure border-crossing credentials.

But the controversial plan, known as the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, would be postponed for 17 months, to June 1, 2009, if an amendment adopted by the Senate Appropriations Committee in two separate pieces of legislation becomes law.

Border state Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) drafted the amendment, which resembles a provision they included in immigration reform legislation the Senate adopted last month.

Because the immigration bill's prospects are unclear, the two Senators added a similar provision to the Homeland Security and State departments' funding bills for fiscal 2007, which the appropriations committee approved.

The travel initiative is 'a train wreck on the horizon,' Leahy said in a statement. 'It will be far easier and less harmful to fix these problems before this system goes into effect than to have to mop up the mess afterward.'

The travel initiative applies to several categories of travelers in the Western Hemisphere, including Americans, most Canadians, Mexicans and some others who previously have not been required to present secure proof of citizenship and identity.

It requires the travelers to present either a passport or another type of secure document establishing citizenship and identity when entering the country, beginning Jan. 1, 2008.

In mid-January, State and the DHS unveiled plans for a new form of identification, termed the People Access Security Services (PASS) card, to be issued to Americans.

PASS cards would be added to the existing 'Texas hold-em' sheaf of border-crossing credentials, which include passports, the Mexican 'laser visa,' and the Sentri, Nexus or FAST cards used along the northern border.

Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and DHS secretary Michael Chertoff touted the PASS card program as a traveler-friendly solution to the tightened border credential requirement.

The lawmakers' provision comes just as DHS is set to release regulations laying out the PASS program's technical details. The proposed regulations have yet to emerge, however.

Over the past six months, State and DHS have wrangled over the type of technology that the PASS project will use, with privacy issues at the center of the dispute.
The plans have prompted outrage in border communities, according to several border state legislators, who charge that they will impose burdensome costs and throttle border commerce.

Under existing rules, Canadians entering the United States can gain entry by showing a birth certificate or any of several other documents.

Specialists in immigration matters acknowledge that many U.S. citizens cross the northern border with no identification at all, apart from their personal recognition by border officials.

The Leahy-Stevens amendment also includes several provisions covering the technology to be used in PASS cards. The language calls for State and DHS to agree on security standards and share the technology with Canada and Mexico, and to install all necessary technological infrastructure at ports of entry to process the cards, and train agents at the border crossings in all aspects of the new technology.

State and DHS have wrangled for months over which type of RFID technology is best for the card.

State favors a contactless 'smart card' with a short-range RFID chip and privacy protections, while DHS prefers an ultra-high-frequency or 'vicinity' form of RFID that allows many cards to be read simultaneously at distances of up to 50 feet.

DHS' U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology System office submitted its recommendation to Chertoff in May to use vicinity RFID.

'We made our decision based on how we would use it from an operational standpoint,' said Bob Mocny, acting US Visit program manager. 'Nexus and Sentri use this technology at the northern and southern borders. We want to move to Generation 2 technology.'

Privacy advocates have complained that vicinity RFID lacks sufficient privacy protections.

For example, they contend a system that would detect the transmission of a vicinity-type RFID document wouldn't establish a link between the travel credential and a person.

The Stevens-Leahy amendment requires that State and DHS agree on a technology that meets certain security standards, among other provisions.

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer for GCN's sister publication, Washington Technology.GCN senior writer Wilson P. Dizard III contributed to this story.

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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