DHS lays groundwork for border RFID acquisition

The Homeland Security Department's flagship U.S. Visit program may seek proposals in mid-2006 for a full-scale radio-frequency identification project at ports of entry.

Program manager Jim Williams said in an interview that U.S. Visit, launched last week at five border points to study the technology, might not now have the same systems that program officials will deploy in the full-scale phase.

'This is an early evaluation, we are not sure it will be the final answer,' Williams said of the proof-of-concept project. 'We may have a further competition nine months from now.'

U.S. Visit and its Smart Border Alliance vendor team last week rolled out the project at two border points in Nogales, Ariz., two crossings in Blaine, Wash., and a border checkpoint at the Thousand Island Bridge in Alexandria Bay, N.Y.

Officials are using RFID technology from Symbol Technologies of Holtsville, N.Y., according to Williams and the vendor. The proof-of-concept project will run to March 2006, Williams said.

On July 22, U.S. Visit officials issued a request for information, seeking vendors with enough production capacity to handle a full-scale project within a nine- to 18-month window.

Williams said U.S. Visit officials are seeking to use the current project to determine the 'read rates,' or speed, of existing RFID systems and to analyze the question of 'contention,' or possible conflict with other RFID systems in use at the borders.

'We have to make sure we don't interfere with existing implementations,' Williams said.

'Customs and Border Protection already has RFID implementations for trusted travelers under the Nexus and Sentri programs.'

Sentri stands for Secure Electronic Network for Travelers Rapid Inspection. CBP uses it along the border with Mexico. Nexus is a commuter lane system that uses RFID technology and is deployed along the Canadian border.

U.S. Visit's approach to RFID involves a chip embedded in the I-94 forms that foreign visitors fill out when they enter the country and are required to display on their exit. The chip is coded with a unique number that corresponds to a data file in the U.S. Visit system.

When a traveler leaves the country with one of the RFID-enabled I-94 forms, the system is supposed to record the departure.

'At this time, we would establish that the document has left,' Williams said. 'The technology is not mature enough to incorporate the biometric information. We believe the biometric information will be available in a reasonable time frame.'

On Aug. 4, the U.S. Visit program issued a notice with request for comments on the RFID proof-of-concept project.

The Federal Register notice summarizes the RFID project and notes that the system used at the five border points will rely on passive RFID technology, or chips that do not actively emit radio signals. Rather, the chips will respond when equipment at the border queries them.

The notice goes on to describe how travelers with multiple-entry RFID-equipped I-94s will have their forms read by the system as they approach the border. That process will help the system call up their information more quickly.

Comments are due by Oct. 3.

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