Senate delays border-crossing card because of privacy concerns

The Homeland Security Department's controversial new border-crossing identification card initiative would be postponed for 17 months under an amendment adopted by the Senate this week as part of the immigration reform package.

The postponement applies to the People Access Security Services smart card, called the PASS card, that would be issued to Americans, Canadians and Mexicans who frequently cross the U.S. border. The PASS card is part of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, intended to ensure that all travelers from the Americas use either passports or a border-crossing identification card.

The deadline to implement the PASS card is Jan. 1, 2008. However, under the amendment introduced by Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), it would be pushed back to June 1, 2009. The delay was approved by a voice vote Wednesday.

One factor that led to the Senate's delay of the program is criticism of DHS' move to place ultra-high-frequency radio frequency tags on the PASS cards. This would allow multiple cards to be read promptly at a distance, making for smooth flow of commerce. However, privacy advocates assert that this long-range type of RFID cannot protect privacy.

Leahy and Stevens said DHS' choice of UHF RFID for the PASS card is a security risk.

'The technology favored by DHS is an 'open' UHF system that would possibly make our border less secure,' according to a statement released by Leahy and Stevens.

Leahy also has criticized the lack of coordination between DHS and the State Department on the choice of technology. The State Department is leaning toward a short-range RFID that uses contactless smart chips, similar to those used for passports, which must be read at a close distance and have numerous security features to protect privacy, industry sources say.

Leahy also said federal agencies are ill-prepared to implement the PASS card plan, and the result is likely to be major disruptions in commerce, tourism and travel.

The PASS card requirements are 'a train wreck on the horizon for the Northern Border,' Leahy said in a statement.

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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