PASS card debate enters next round

Factions argue which technology would work best for credentials at the border

A delay in WHTI implementation is critical. DHS and State cannot implement the plan by this coming January, nor should they'it needs to be fixed.'

' Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.)

The bell rang last week for a new round in the tag-team wrestling match over the best technology for border crossing credentials.

The border credential smackdown will reach its climax after Congress' August recess, when a conference committee on the Homeland Security Department appropriations bill is set to decide the matter.

The People Access Security Service, or PASS, card project forms part of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, which would require a secure credential that verifies the citizenship and identity of U.S. nationals who re-enter the country.

The debate heated up over the past month as industry associations started lobbying lawmakers, and 21 House members pressed the White House for a delay.

In one corner is the Information Technology Industry Association of Arlington, Va., which worked to throttle a proposed legislative mandate of smart-card technology for the PASS project. ITAA prefers that no specific standard be named in the bill.

In the other corner is the Smart Card Industry Alliance of Princeton Junction, N.J., which worked to preserve an amendment in the Senate version of the DHS funding bill that would recommend smart-card technology based on the International Standards Organization 14443 standard for the PASS card.

Government players

Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Ted Stevens (R-Alaska)'who introduced the amendment to delay the PASS Card 17 months, until June 2009'loomed large in the fray, poised to back the Senate version of HR 5541. Both senators will sit on the conference committee.

The executive branch team includes the Office of Management and Budget, and the State and Homeland Security departments. They seek to knock the Leahy/Stevens amendment out of the ring'passing out talking points to lawmakers who support the PASS Card as originally planned.

As all this debate continued, Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) last week issued a statement reflecting the views of 21 fellow Empire State House members, who wrote to OMB in March criticizing WHTI's costs and the prospect of its choking travel and trade with Canada.

'We cannot allow the current WHTI proposal to unnecessarily destroy the economic and cultural ties between the U.S. and Canada,' Slaughter said. 'If we do not fix the plan, DHS and State will continue down a course that will prove disastrous for both countries. We can simultaneously achieve both strong border security and economic security with Canada, but only if Congress acts soon.'

Slaughter added, 'A delay in WHTI implementation is critical. DHS and State cannot implement the plan by this coming January, nor should they'it needs to be fixed. Backing implementation up will give us the time we need to fix WHTI where it is broken and actually move forward with a plan that will benefit our border economies, rather than damaging them.'

In response to the March letter, OMB pledged to direct DHS to study the matter.

An OMB spokeswoman said, 'We appreciate the concerns of the New York delegation and have taken their comments into careful consideration. This is an important issue we continue to examine, as do the departments of Homeland Security and State. During our review, we will determine the economic significance of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative.'

Slaughter has met with OMB officials to discuss WHTI. They confirmed that WHTI would cost more than $100 million annually, a level that triggers a requirement for an economic study.

Slaughter noted that as of late May, DHS had not even started the economic analysis. She cited a Government Accountability Office report stating that the delay in making a technology decision would make it impossible for the administration to launch the PASS card program by its original January 2008 deadline.

The ITAA last week unveiled a letter to the chairmen and ranking members of the House and Senate appropriations committees, urging them to strip the PASS card technology requirements from HR 5541.

ITAA said its members back a 'technology neutral' approach to the PASS card that focuses on performance requirements rather than on any given standard.
The Smart Card Industry Alliance backs the Leahy/Stevens amendment.

Randy Vanderhoof, the alliance's executive director, said last week, 'When we saw that the Leahy/Stevens amendment was going to delay the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, we thought it was a good opportunity to get the technology right, as opposed to proceeding the way DHS was heading [in the direction of nonsecure, ultrahigh-frequency RFID technology].

'We favor the ISO 14443 standard,' Vanderhoof said. 'The issue is security and privacy over efficiency. DHS has taken a strong stand for efficiency over privacy.'

Long-range technology

DHS and State have been framing the PASS card regulations in a process that began in January and has not generated a publicly announced regulation. State has been backing secure smart-card technology that provides for chips to be read at a range of about four inches.

DHS leaders, including former U.S. Visit program manager Jim Williams, have advocated 'vicinity' or long-range technology that would allow border systems to garner data from vehicles traveling quickly through border checkpoints].

One approach to that vicinity technology would use the Electronic Product Code Generation 2 standard for ultrahigh-frequency RFID devices used for tracking packages.

State favors the use of short-range contactless chip or technology that the alliance and the Leahy/Stevens amendment endorse. State has adopted that technology for electronic passports.

Vanderhoof said the ITAA position reflected the views of its members who sell ultralong-range technology.

But ITAA's director of homeland security programs, Jennifer Kerber, said, 'Should the legislation have gone in and mandated the EPC Gen 2 technology, we would also be opposed to that provision, because it would have mandated a specific technology.'

She said ITAA is not weighing in on the entire amendment, but seeks only to have the technology mandate stripped.

Congressional staff sources say the PASS card likely will include a 'machine readable zone' compatible with the visible alphanumeric symbols and hash marks inside passports. All federal border crossing installations, embassies and consulates have MRZ readers, as do those of some foreign countries.

As a result, the congressional staff sources say, the PASS card's MRZ feature, along with its other low- and high-level security features, would provide unambiguous proof of citizenship and identity to foreign agencies as well.

On that point, the Smart Card Alliance opposes the use of the MRZ for the PASS card, Vanderhoof said.

A Senate appropriations committee staff member, who requested anonymity, said the conferee's final decision was up in the air. While Leahy and Stevens would be expected to back their amendment, decisions by other conferees could sway the balance, the Senate aide said.

'The White House likely would accept some delay in the PASS card requirement, but not one as long as 17 months,' the Senate aide said. OMB did not address that point in detail.

A House aide, who also requested anonymity, said chances for survival of the PASS card program in its current form lay in the range of '50-50.'

The ultimate fate of the program would partly be decided by what incentives and compromises the executive branch would offer and accept, the aide added.

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